Friday, June 12, 2009
Fury in China and U.K. as BDA goes out on a limb to accept Guantanamo detainees
Bermuda has been thrust into an international political firestorm by allowing four former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay to take refuge on the island. The move is likely to garner favour with President Obama, who has been desperate to find homes for former inmates after promising to close Guantanamo by January.
However, the Chinese government is furious, and says the U.S. should extradite what it calls "suspected terrorists" to China. The British Government, and Governor Sir Richard Gozney, are also less than impressed, and say Bermuda should have consulted with them before giving the four men a home.
Welcome to paradise: The four Chinese Muslims spent years in harsh captivity - and years more in political limbo - before Bermuda offered them a home. The men understandably say they are delighted to be here.
"We were not involved in the negotiations, and we should have been. The Government of Bermuda should have consulted Government House at every stage and through me the British government. They didn't do that. This is an issue that goes far wider than these four individuals. We now need to assess these four individuals." He said London has launched urgent talks with Washington yesterday.
The Justice Department in the States insists it has done full checks on the men's background and character and is convinced they have never been involved in terrorism. Three years ago, the four prisoners were among those cleared by an American court of fighting U.S. troops. Since then, over 100 countries have refused to give them asylum, partly through fear of angering China.
However, Sir Richard said the assessments on the men needed to be done by Britain before they were allowed into Bermuda: "These men are on British territory. Our view is that [the assessments] need to be done by Bermuda and Britain and we can't rely on a third party assessment. If we are taking four people from Guantanamo, clearly there is a security issue there, and we need to know we have done our homework." Sir Richard said only yesterday was Government House given the paperwork for the four men. He said: "Now we have started to do that homework, and we can do it quickly. But it should have been done before now. It would have been had we been involved from the start."
The four men - named as Abdul Nasser, Huzaifa Parhat, Abdul Semet and Jalal Jalaladin - are members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic sect. The Chinese claim they were part of an army fighting for independence in the northwest of the country.
Sir Richard said the men are not just refugees, they are political refugees and a special case both because of their country of origin and where they were held in prison. He said the political ramifications are huge, as evidenced by the fact that no other countries have previously come forward to house them. "That's why they have been trapped in Guantanamo," said Sir Richard.
'An immigration issue'
Premier Ewart Brown said last night that it was not Britain's place to get involved at all. He said the Bermuda Government is viewing it as an immigration issue - which falls to the Government - as opposed to a foreign affairs and security issue - which falls to the Governor. He also denied that Bermudians should have been kept informed of the plan so that they could challenge it if they felt uncomfortable. He said the plan would have ground to a halt if the public had been involved. He said: "You can see why the talks have to be private and somewhat restricted...Otherwise it wouldn't have been able to happen."
He also addressed a concern shared by many Bermudians: why is the island offering housing and jobs to these men when there are so many on the island who are going without. Dr. Brown said: "We have our problems. We have our problems with or without these people, and we will continue to have our challenges without these four people." He said with 10,000 guest workers here, "four people isn't even a ripple in the water."
Bermudians are also asking: why can't the men be sent home? Experts point out that China has one of the worst human rights records in the world. The men would almost certainly be tortured and killed if they were sent home.
Dr. Brown said that meant Bermuda has a moral responsibility to give the men a home. The U.S. Government yesterday thanked the island for stepping in. Attorney General Eric Holder of the Justice Department said: "By helping accomplish the president's objective of closing Guantanamo, the transfer of these detainees will make America safer." He added that the department was "extremely grateful to the government of Bermuda for its assistance."
However, the Chinese Government has condemned the move. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: "The 17 Uigurs are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is on the United Nations list of terrorist groups and China holds the unswerving stand that the U.S. should stop handing over the terrorists to any third country, so as to expatriate them to China at an early date."
At a glance — the key questions
Will the men be under any restrictions in Bermuda?
No. They will be free members of society, helped to gain employment and found housing.
Government claim the men have "skills in the mechanical trade" and at least two speak good English.
The men will get the chance to "become naturalized Bermudians". The only restriction on them will be travel - they must get clearance from foreign authorities before traveling to the U.S. or U.K.
Why were the men sent to Guantanamo in the first place?
They were living in a self-contained camp in Afghanistan when the U.S. invasion began in October 2001.
American troops rounded up anyone they thought was an enemy combatant. The prisoners claimed they had fled to Afghanistan to avoid persecution as Muslims in their own country.
After more than four years in Guantanamo Bay, an American court found they were not enemy combatants and cleared of all wrongdoing.
Why can't the men be sent back to China?
The Chinese believe they were part of a Muslim guerilla army fighting for independence in the northwest of the country. This has not been proved.
China has an appalling human rights record and the men would be unlikely to receive a fair trial. Instead, they would likely be tortured and executed.
Why aren't these men given a home in the States, since it was America who locked them up?
An original plan to take the men to Virginia met with fierce opposition from Congress.
At one point, the Justice Department argued they should never be admitted into the country because they "sought to wage terror" in China.
A district judge ruled the men should be freed in the States, only to be overruled by an appeals court, which said the judge had assumed too much power. That final ruling left the men in legal limbo.
Why have so many other countries declined to take the men?
It may have been simply that there are few political points to be won giving a home to former suspected terrorists.
Just as importantly, countries have been wary of making enemies of China.
"Bermuda just stepped up and did it, God bless them," said P. Sabin Willett, a lawyer for the four men. "They have put the bigger countries to shame."
What does Bermuda get out of the deal?
According to reports, Palau, a Pacific island that is taking 13 more former prisoners, was being offered hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money as a sweetener.
It does not appear that Bermuda will benefit from any such payment. Instead, the U.S. has agreed only to pay for all costs related to the relocation and resettlement of the men.
The most important boon to Bermuda may be the goodwill generated with President Obama, at a time when governments around the world are looking to clamp down on low-tax jurisdictions.
Research by Tim Hall