Thursday, June 11, 2009

China Protests Moving of Detainees

China Protests Moving of Detainees

Pool photograph by Brennan Linsley

Chinese Uighur detainees at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, earlier this month.

Published: June 11, 2009

BEIJING — The Chinese government protested Thursday over the decision by the American government to resettle a group of Chinese Muslims to the isolated archipelago of Palau. The Uighur men, former detainees at Guantánamo Bay, have been in a state of limbo since they were cleared of wrongdoing last fall.
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Times Topics: Uighurs | Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (Cuba)

In a news conference in Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, called the detainees “terrorist suspects” and demanded they be sent back to China as soon as possible. He said that the United States was ignoring international laws on terrorism in not doing so.

Shortly afterward, the United States announced that it had sent four Chinese Muslims who had also been detained at Guantánamo to the island of Bermuda.

But hours after the detainees arrived on the island on Thursday, there was already the first sign that their peaceful resettlement would not be without hitches. Bermuda is a British overseas territory, but its premier, Ewart F. Brown, did not mention to the British government that was planning to accept the detainees.

The result was a terse British statement, as well as a pledge that the Foreign Office would help Bermuda “carry out a security assessment of the men.”

“We have underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted the UK on whether this falls within their competence, or is a foreign affairs or security issue for which the Bermuda Government do not have delegated responsibility,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said.

The conflict involves 17 Chinese Muslims — of the Uighur ethnic group from northwest China — who were seized in Afghanistan during the American-led invasion in 2001 and accused of being terrorists, but who maintained that they had been seeking refuge from Chinese persecution. China maintains that they are members of an Islamic separatist group that is seeking independence for Xinjiang, a vast province in northwest China whose Muslim population has often bridled under Chinese rule.

During the Bush administration, officials determined that the Uighurs did not travel to Afghanistan with the intent to take any hostile action against the United States, and in the end, cleared them for release.

But the United States resisted moving them onto American soil, and at one point, the Justice Department argued they should never be admitted into the country because they “sought to wage terror” in China.

In February, a federal appeals court overturned a district judge’s order that would have freed the men in the United States, saying the judge was assuming powers reserved to the president and Congress.

That decision left in place the Bush administration’s concession that the men were not enemy combatants, the classification the government used to detain men at Guantánamo. The result was a legal limbo.

American officials resisted sending the men back to China, fearing they would be jailed, tortured or executed, and have been searching for other countries willing to take them. State Department officials had said some 100 countries refused to take the men.

The resettlement of the four Uighurs to Bermuda was announced Thursday on the Justice Department’s Web site. It is the first time since 2006 that the government has resettled any of the Guantánamo Uighurs. The Justice Department said it had conducted a comprehensive review of the four, including a threat evaluation, before approving them for resettlement.

In 2006, five were transferred to Albania; there have been “no reports of post-resettlement engagement in criminal behavior or terrorist activities,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

“By helping accomplish the president’s objective of closing Guantánamo, the transfer of these detainees will make America safer,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in the statement, adding that the department was “extremely grateful to the government of Bermuda for its assistance.”

Bermuda’s premier, Ewart F. Brown, said in a statement on Thursday that the four detainees had been granted short-term asylum in Bermuda as a humanitarian gesture and a token of the island’s friendship with the United States. Washington, he said, will bear the costs associated with relocating the men on the island.

“Of the prisoners held there,” Mr. Brown said, referring to Guantanamo, “many are innocent men, held without trial or any form of due process; many are refugees from their own lands whose political views are contrary to the regimes in power. They have committed no crime,” he said.

The detainees “will have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens,” he said, “and thereafter afforded the right to travel and leave Bermuda, potentially settling elsewhere.”

But, because of its colonial status, Mr. Brown also said that it is “important for everyone to understand that this process is not complete.”

Mr. Brown said that he had met with the British-appointed governor of Bermuda Thursday morning to seek formal approval of the government’s plan, and that the governor “is seeking to further assess the ramifications of this move before allowing the Government of Bermuda to fully implement this action.”

The lawyers of one of the freed detainees, Abdul Nasser, said in a statement upon the men’s arrival on the sun-swept island that the men were grateful for Bermuda’s action, the Agence France-Presse reported.

“Growing up under communism, we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one,” Mr. Nasser said. “Today you have let freedom ring.”

Regarding the detainees now in Bermuda, Britain said it would “decide on further steps as appropriate,” and stressed that the four “do not have travel documents and will therefore not be able to travel to the UK.”

China did not specify what, if any actions it would take to protest the relocation of the Uighurs. Palau, a Pacific island nation and former United States territory, does not have diplomatic relations with China, which may help insulate it from retribution.

Andrew Jacobs reported from Beijing and Sharon Otterman from New York.

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