STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A federal judge will hear arguments today concerning the fate of two men being held at the US military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The men are Uighurs. That's a minority Muslim group in northwestern China. They've been held at the remote military base for more than three years, even though the administration has determined that the men are no longer a risk to the United States. To find out why, we've called on NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
Very little is known about the two Chinese Muslim men who are at the core of today's federal court hearing, but their situation has exposed the deep flaw in the Bush administration's policy on holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. What is known is that Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdu al-Hakim grew up in China. The Pentagon says the two received weapons training by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both men were captured and sent to Guantanamo in June of 2002.
More than a year ago, the Pentagon determined that the two Uighurs are not enemy combatants and so by rights should be allowed to leave Guantanamo. But Pierre-Richard Prosper, the US ambassador at large for war crimes, says the two men face persecution and perhaps torture if they're sent home to China.
Ambassador PIERRE-RICHARD PROSPER (US Ambassador At Large For War Crimes): When we made a decision that we wanted to release these Uighurs, we also decided that we were not prepared to send them back to China. So as a result, we had to find a third country for resettlement.
NORTHAM: Prosper says the US government has been actively trying to find a country that will take Qassim and Hakim, as well as more than a dozen other Uighurs being held at Guantanamo, with no luck.
Amb. PROSPER: We've approached probably about 25 countries.
Amb. PROSPER: Well, different degrees of response. Some is, you know, the flat-out no, some, you know, lukewarm, and others we continue to go back and forth with.
NORTHAM: Alex Biscaro is spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC. He says the US approached his government informally to see if it would be interested in taking the Uighurs.
Mr. ALEX BISCARO (Spokesman, Swiss Embassy): The question was whether there is a possibility to get them into Switzerland and with a status of refugees. And that was the main hurdle we have, was what kind of status can be given to them because, actually, technically or legally speaking, it's difficult to put them into a refugee status. So we have severe legal hurdles, so that we had to decline.
NORTHAM: Some countries have looked to the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, to determine refugee status before they agreed to resettle anyone. Jennifer Pagonis, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Geneva, says her organization needs more details about the Uighurs before it makes that determination.
Ms. JENNIFER PAGONIS (Spokesman, UNHCR): We don't have any information. We don't know who these people are, what their stories are, what were the circumstances surrounding their arrests. So, you know, if we don't have any of this information, we can't really know whether they're of concern to us or not.
NORTHAM: Pagonis says the UNHCR would need to talk to each of the Uighurs before making that determination, but the UNHCR has not been invited to Guantanamo to talk to the Uighurs and it won't be invited until it can give the administration a sense of whether or not it can help sort out the problem, says the State Department's Prosper.
Amb. PROSPER: In other words, there's no sense in having them go to Guantanamo if they know right now that they will not be able to, A, classify them as refugees, and then, B, help us with the resettlement process.
NORTHAM: But lawyers for the Uighurs say it's wrong for their clients to have to sit in prison while the administration tries to find them somewhere to live. US military officials say the men will be moved into a newly refurbished minimum security prison at Guantanamo and they'll have access to DVDs, communal dinners and more time for recreation. Sabin Willett, defense lawyer for Qassim and Hakim, argues that his clients should either be allowed to live on the civilian side of the Guantanamo Base or, Willett says, that the judge hearing the case should bring the two men to the United States and grant them some kind of parole.
Mr. SABIN WILLETT (Lawyer for Qassim and Hakim): That is, release them to the care and custody of some of the ex-pat Uighurs who are resident in the area and subject to, you know, reporting conditions or something like that until the State Department ultimately works out a country for them to go to.
NORTHAM: But Brad Berenson, a Washington lawyer who was involved in formulating the administration's legal strategy regarding detainees, says that the Uighurs cannot be allowed to resettle in the US.
Mr. BRAD BERENSON (Washington Lawyer): What if our determination that they no longer present a danger to us is incorrect? I think it would be very, very hard for the president or the secretary of Defense or the secretary of State to justify to the American public releasing someone into our population, on our soil, if it later turns out they really were hostile to us and are, in fact, armed jihadists.
NORTHAM: That's the same argument that several governments made when asked why they turned down overtures by Washington to resettle the Uighurs held at Guantanamo.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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