Bermuda Premier Faces Scrutiny
Leader Defends Taking Former Guantanamo Prisoners, but Critics See Other Motives
By PAULO PRADA
HAMILTON, Bermuda -- Bermuda's top elected official survived a vote of no-confidence after a 14-hour parliamentary debate here over the weekend, but Prime Minister Ewart Brown remains the focus of fiery public debate over the motives that led him to accept four freed prisoners from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Brown, in an interview, said the decision was "the right thing to do" and that he was happy "to be of help to the United States and to President Obama."
Bermuda Debates Uighurs' Status
Four Uighurs released from U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay are being resettled in Bermuda, where the government's decision to take them has stirred controversy. Above, three of the men at an ice cream shop.
In recent days, he has called the move a "humanitarian gesture," considering that the former detainees, Uighur Muslims from western China, can't return to their homeland, where the government considers them a separatist threat.
Yet many of Bermuda's nearly 70,000 people divine the premier's true motives in political goals on distant shores of the Atlantic. By cozying up to the Obama administration, some observers say, Mr. Brown hopes to gain leverage for Bermuda as the U.S. looks to tighten rules on overseas tax shelters.
Mr. Brown has also stoked the old debate over independence for the island by making the decision without consulting Bermuda's territorial overseers in the U.K., not to mention the British-appointed governor on the island.
"He's looking for brownie points with Obama and at the same time trying to make the British get angry," said Ed Rainor, a 68-year-old diesel mechanic, discussing the Uighur transfer with a group of friends at Albouy's Point, a small waterfront park in Hamilton, Bermuda's capital.
Mr. Brown, like most Bermudians, has long navigated the cultural and political divides characteristic of the territory, a verdant and costly island just a two-hour flight east of the Carolinas.
A native of the island, Mr. Brown, 63 years old, is also a former citizen of the U.S., where he studied and practiced medicine in Washington and Los Angeles. Bermuda itself, while a jewel of the British Commonwealth, depends on the inflow of American tourists and dollars from U.S. companies, many of which take advantage of its lack of corporate taxes.
Mr. Brown's decision to accept the Uighurs, who were cleared of any suspicion by the U.S. and are now living freely in a guesthouse near Bermuda's airport, unleashed an outcry from critics enraged that he didn't consult British authorities -- or even his own cabinet -- first. Bermudians learned of the decision on June 11, the morning after the Uighurs were flown here.
Last week, hundreds of protesters called for the premier's ouster in marches through downtown Hamilton, a city of pastel-painted mansions, white roofs, and colonial architecture. Signs read "good deed, wrong way," expressing displeasure not with the arrival of the Uighurs themselves, but with what protesters considered the premier's failure to govern with transparency.
Mr. Brown has repeatedly enacted policies without sufficient public discourse since he took office in 2006, critics say, including controversial changes to a public-health clinic and his handling of a contract for promoting tourism from the U.S.
"Voters of this country have been disrespected by our premier time and time again," said Janice Battersbee, a protest organizer, at a rally last Friday. "Our voices were neither heard nor welcomed."
Mr. Brown says his style is "assertive," but says the decision to take the former Guantanamo prisoners conforms to his government's interpretation of the constitution.
Over the weekend, public speculation turned to the prime minister's motives. Some say Bermuda could press the U.S. for money it has long sought to clean up waste, including fuel spills, at abandoned facilities that the U.S. Navy once used on the island. But most say Mr. Brown wants to use the move to win Bermuda concessions ahead of any U.S. crackdown on offshore tax shelters.
During last year's U.S. election, Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to pursue such measures. A "Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act," now proposed in both houses of Congress, lists Bermuda as one of 34 overseas shelters that could be targeted for sanctions.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the discussions with Bermuda.
Mr. Brown said there "was no quid pro quo," but added, "it's unrealistic to expect that the relationship between Bermuda and the U.S. was not strengthened."
After objections from the British government over his acceptance of the Uighurs, a move London says is under its authority as foreign and security policy, many Bermudians said they believe Mr. Brown is trying to push for the eventual goal of independence.
Though Bermudians have rejected votes on independence in the past, Mr. Brown and other leaders in the ruling party believe it should eventually happen. "It's always on the agenda but not always on the front burner," he said. "When issues like this come up, it moves to the front."
—Jonathan Weisman in Washington and Alistair MacDonald in London contributed to this article.
Write to Paulo Prada at email@example.com