Thursday, June 11, 2009

Foreign Office fury over settlement of Guantánamo Uighurs

Foreign Office fury over settlement of Guantánamo Uighurs in Bermuda
Flatts Village is a small settlement in Bermuda

The tropical island of Bermuda is Britain's oldest remaining dependency
Image :1 of 2
Philippe Naughton

The British Government responded with ill-disguised fury tonight to the news that four Chinese Uighurs freed from Guantanamo Bay had been flown for resettlement on the Atlantic tourist paradise of Bermuda.

The four arrived on Bermuda in the early hours, celebrating the end of seven years of detention after learning that they were to be accepted as guest workers.

But it appears that the Government of Bermuda failed to consult with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the decision to take in the Uighurs – whose return is demanded by Beijing – and it could now be forced to send them back to Cuba or risk a grave diplomatic crisis.

Bermuda, Britain's oldest remaining dependency, is one of 14 overseas territories that come under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, which retains direct responsibility for such matters as foreign policy and security.

"We've underlined to the Bermuda Government that they should have consulted with the United Kingdom as to whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue, for which the Bermuda Government do not have delegated responsibility," an FCO spokesman said.

"We have made clear to the Bermuda Government the need for a security assessment, which we are now helping them to carry out, and we will decide on further steps as appropriate."

The four freed men – Abdul Nasser, Huzaifa Parhat, Abdul Semet and Jalal Jalaladin – were among 17 men from the largely Muslim Chinese minority groups still held in Guantanamo Bay.

After seven years of extra-judicial detention, the men did not appear to mind which island paradise they ended up in – and formally thanked for Bermuda for taking them.

“Growing up under communism, we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one,” Abdul Nasser, one of the four, said in a statement released through his lawyers. “Today you have let freedom ring."

It was reported yesterday that all 17 Guantanamo Uighurs were to be temporarily rehoused on the South Pacific island paradise of Palau as President Obama moves to close down the hated detention camp.

The 17 were part of a group of 22 Uighurs allegedly captured by Pakistani bounty hunters in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in October 2001 and taken to Guantanamo Bay the following year.

US authorities ruled four years ago that they were not involved in extremism and had gone to Afghanistan to escape persecution in China. Five of them were resettled in Albania but attempts to rehouse the others in the United States ran foul of public opinion.

For the past four years, the Uighurs have been held at Camp Iguana, a low-security facility in Guantanamo Bay, with views of the Caribbean and pizza deliveries.

After news that Palau, a former US territory, had agreed to take in the Uighurs, China today demanded that they be sent back there to be tried as terrorists – but the United States refuses to do so.

Palau's decision appeared to be linked to a US offer of $200 million in "development and budget aid", but it was not clear whether Bermuda had been offered a similar amount.

Ewart Brown, the Bermudian Premier, said that the United States had agreed to bear the costs associated with relocating the men on the island.

In a statement, Mr Brown said the men have “the opportunity to become naturalised citizens and thereafter afforded the right to travel and leave Bermuda, potentially settling elsewhere", although he said that the resettlement of the inmates was still contingent on the advice from Britain.

Mr Brown said he felt a responsibility to help the men “who have been caught in a web of reaction to tragic events which at the time of their happening were not well understood".

“Those of us in leadership have a common understanding of the need to make tough decisions and to sometimes make them in spite of their unpopularity, simply because it is the right thing to do,” he said.

Sabin Willet, one of two lawyers who accompanied the men, hailed Bermuda for its “act of grace". He said: “Nations need good friends. When political opportunists blocked justice in our own country, Bermuda has reminded her old friend America what justice is."

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