Guantánamo Uighurs: pack your bags for Palau

The tiny Pacific nation agreed Monday to accept the detainees – along with $200 million in US aid.

By , Asia editor

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    The remote Pacific island-nation of Palau has agreed to a U.S. request to temporarily resettle up to 17 Chinese Muslims now held at the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
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At last, 17 Uighurs detained in Guantánamo since 2002 and stuck in legal limbo since last year will leave the prison camp. Their departure had been delayed as the United States sought to find one country willing to defy China, which wants its “terrorists” back, and take the men in: Palau.

Where?

You know, the tiny archipelago of eight main islands and 250 islets 500 miles east of the Philippines. It's famous for its tropical climate, tourism, and diving.

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Apparently, the little Pacific nation is willing to do what Germany, Australia, Canada, and about 100 others wouldn’t. Their reluctance is probably not from the men’s terrorist inclinations – senior US officials say they pose “the least risks” of all remaining Guantánamo prisoners. More to the point are repercussions from China, which has tried to block the Uighurs from being resettled elsewhere.

Albania took in five Uighur detainees from Guantánamo in 2006 but has since refused to accept more, “partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China,” according to the Associated Press.

The US had refused to send them back to China out of concern they would suffer persecution. (Click here to read about the oppression of Uighurs, a Muslim minority based in western China.)

Last month, the Monitor reported (click here) about China’s efforts to block the resettlement of one Uighur detainee in Sweden. Adil Hakimjan had originally been sent to Albania but applied for asylum in Sweden while there for a human rights conference. He won his case in April, making him the first Guantánamo ex-detainee to avoid return to his homeland and instead win asylum in the European Union.)

So why is Palau willing?

For one, the superpower in its corner: the US, for which Palau was actually a trust territory until it gained independence in 1994. The US still gives Palau significant foreign aid and has guaranteed its security until 2044. The two countries are so close that native-born Palauans can enter the US without a passport or visa. Palau also uses the US dollar as its currency. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the tiny nation one of America’s “staunchest allies."

"This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau," Palauan President Johnson Toribiong said in a statement released to the Associated Press.

China had no immediate comment on Palau’s decision.

Palau will also receive $200 million in development and other aid as thanks for taking in the Uighurs, according to two US officials speaking to the AP on the condition of anonymity. A senior State Department official quoted in The New York Times rejected the idea that the money was a quid pro quo.

Whatever the cause, it’s a generous sum, especially for a country with the population of a typical American suburb (about 20,000 people) whose gross domestic product barely tops $167 million.

Of course, Palau has experience in defying China: It's one of just 23 nations that still recognizes Taiwan, the island that China considers part of its territory. Over the decades many countries have severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and thrown their weight to the People's Republic of China instead.

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