Guantánamo's untouchables: What to do with Uighurs

The US moves toward sending the Chinese Muslims to Palau, a remote Pacific island. But some experts say that would be a mistake.

Army Corps of Engineers/ AP/File
The Obama administration is considering sending 17 Chinese Muslims at the Guantánamo detention facility to the Pacific archipelago of Palau, pictured here in a 2005 photo.

The plight of 17 Chinese Muslims ordered released from the terror prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, may be moving toward a solution with their possible resettlement to Palau in the south Pacific.

Relocation to a tropical island may sound enticing to the detainees after seven years of confinement behind fences and razor wire on a parched corner of southeastern Cuba.

But some analysts say it would be a strategic mistake for the Obama administration to send those particular detainees, known as Uighurs, to the Pacific rather than allowing them to resettle on US soil.

These analysts say that if the US expects cooperation from Europe in resettling up to 50 Guantánamo detainees, the Obama administration must first demonstrate its good will by taking in at least some detainees itself. They note that the Uighurs are probably the safest, easiest detainees to resettle in the US – even the Bush administration did not classify them as enemy combatants. Yet their situation has been perhaps the most adversely affected by the recent debate in Congress about bringing detainees to America.

"It is inconceivable that any European country would be willing to take a detainee if the US was not willing to take any itself, even as a token symbol," says Geneve Mantri of Amnesty International, who is closely tracking Guantánamo resettlement negotiations. "Given the president's timeline and given the kinds of cases he is left with, it would be hard to see how releasing the easiest cases to a third country [like Palau] would help you."

The Palau government says it has agreed to temporarily accept the 17 Uighurs. Officials said they would do so as a humanitarian gesture and to help President Obama make good on his promise to close the Guantánamo detention camp by next January.

There are roughly 240 detainees currently held at the camp. Officials have estimated that 20 to 80 will face trial either in a US civilian courtroom or before a military commission. Roughly 50 have been cleared for resettlement.

Legal challenges waged on behalf of the Uighurs brought procedures at Guantánamo under close judicial scrutiny. The men say they were sold into US captivity by Pakistani bounty hunters in 2001 and 2002. They admitted being present in camps run by fellow Chinese Muslims in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. But they deny any link to Al-Qaeda or terrorism.

The Uighur ethnic group is native to western China. US human rights reports say Uighurs are distrusted as potential political separatists and are subject to abusive treatment by Chinese authorities. The heated political situation in their home region makes resettlement in China impossible. In addition, Chinese diplomatic influence makes resettlement to a third country potentially problematic.

Palau was considered a good fit for resettlement in part because it recognizes the government of Taiwan and does not have diplomatic relations with China.

In October, a federal judge in Washington ordered the government to release the 17 Uighurs and bring them to the US pending their resettlement. That decision was reversed in February by a federal appeals court panel.

Lawyers for the Uighurs have filed briefs urging the Supreme Court to hear their case. The justices are set to consider whether to accept the appeal at their private conference on June 25.

Washington lawyer George Clarke represents two of the Uighurs. He says they were cleared for resettlement six years ago and have been waiting for their release ever since. Mr. Clarke says he watched with dismay in recent weeks as the Uighurs' possible resettlement in the US became a political football with some politicians attempting to win public support by frightening the American public.

"The American people have nothing to fear from these men," Clarke says. "There is no one who has a stronger actual innocence claim that I know of."

Since a federal judge ordered their release in October, the Uighurs have been housed in a special camp at Guantánamo with more privileges than other detainees. But Clarke says they are still imprisoned.

Clarke said he had "no comment" on the Palau resettlement option. But he added: "I can tell you my two clients are open to many different possible alternatives."

One of those alternatives involves resettling in the US with the help of Uighur-American groups and families who have pledged to help the men find housing and jobs. But that option appears to have been rejected by President Obama.

Mr. Mantri of Amnesty International acknowledges the difficulty faced by the Obama administration in closing Guantánamo. "There are plenty of people at Guantánamo who present a real threat and challenge," he says. "But it would be tragic to perpetuate an injustice simply because of a domestic political row [over the Uighurs] that is largely manufactured."

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