From Guantanamo to the South Pacific: Is This a Joke?
Journalist and author of "The Guantanamo Files"
Posted: June 9, 2009 03:50 PM
Let's face it, when it comes to Guantánamo, there's little to laugh about, unless you're an Islamophobic sadist -- in which case, there's still nothing for the rest of us to laugh about.
The Associated Press reports that, in a desperate effort to rid itself of the toxic human debris of Guantánamo, the Obama administration is eyeing up the tiny Republic of Palau, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles (800 km) east of the Philippines, to dispose of some, or all of the 17 Uighurs in Guantánamo.
The Uighurs are Muslims from China's Xinjiang province, who were swept up in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and sold to U.S. forces by Pakistani villagers after fleeing from a run-down hamlet in which they had sought solace from their Chinese oppressors, or, in many cases, because they had found themselves unable to make their way to Turkey or Europe, to look for work, as they had originally intended.
Despite this, their proposed resettlement in the United States has caused panic attacks amongst politicians whose understanding of the prison's inhabitants has clearly gone no further than to curl up at Dick Cheney's knee, and say, "Gee, tell me again how the prisoners in Guantánamo are the most dangerous terrorists in the world?"
Apparently unable to understand that the majority of the prisoners in Guantánamo were bought for bounties, and were never adequately screened to determine their status, these fearful politicians continue to ignore the copious amounts of research demonstrating that all but a few dozen of the remaining 239 prisoners are either completely innocent men, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war in Afghanistan that began long before the 9/11 attacks, and had nothing to do with international terrorism.
In this, they have been ably assisted by the appeals court in Washington D.C., where, in February, a panel of judges led by Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who has, to date, defended every single Guantánamo policy decision that was subsequently reversed by the Supreme Court, overturned an earlier ruling by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina.
In October, Judge Urbina ruled, very sensibly, that the Uighurs were to be allowed to resettle in the United States, in the care of the large Uighur community in and around Washington D.C. and in a community in Tallahassee, Florida that had gone out of its way to help them.
Judge Urbina made his ruling for four very good reasons: firstly, because the government had been persuaded to drop all its charges against the Uighurs (after the most humiliating court defeat, last June); secondly, because they cannot be returned to China, where they face torture or worse: thirdly, because no other country had been found that was prepared to take on China by accepting them: and fourthly, because their continued detention in Guantánamo was, simply, unconstitutional.
Having somehow skipped the class that would have informed them that rocking boats is sometimes required in politics, senior officials in the Obama administration refused to order the men's release into the United States in those first few halcyon days in office, when anything seemed possible, and have now vacillated to such an extent -- most recently, apparently, when Rush Limbaugh started barking -- that releasing them into the U.S. is simply too much to contemplate, even though it clearly remains the right thing to do.
To make matters worse, while mumbling occasionally about transferring some of the Uighurs to the mainland, the administration has, at the same time, been instructing the Justice Department to endorse the views of Judge Randolph in a petition intended to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing the Uighurs' surreal and intolerable limbo.
Confronted with the problem of rehousing five other Uighurs in 2006, the Bush administration secured, for an undisclosed sum, the cooperation of Albania (a Muslim nation, albeit a poor one, with no other Uighurs and little work), but that escape route was soon sealed off as the Albanians found themselves subjected to the wrath of the People's Republic. Since then -- despite hopeful murmurs from other countries, and the acceptance, in Sweden, of an asylum claim by one of the Uighurs sent to Albania, who made a sneaky escape in November 2007 and was finally accepted in February this year -- no other country has yet taken the bait.
The Obama administration could probably weather this -- the odd Bob Dylan-style protest notwithstanding -- by plying the Uighurs with ever more comfort items in their secluded camp, away from all the other prisoners, and would, perhaps, soon be pointing out how marvelous the climate is, but senior officials are aware that the countries of Europe are unlikely to take any other prisoners from Guantánamo facing similar repatriation problems -- from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Russia, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, who are also low achievers in the field of human rights -- unless the U.S. government also plays ball.
Hence the appeal of Palau, which, although it appears to be have been chosen as the result of a dart thrown at a globe by a desperate official, is actually a rather canny option. A former U.S. trust territory, the island became independent in 1994, but retains close ties with its former masters, having signed a "Compact of Free Association" with the U.S., guaranteeing financial assistance in exchange for certain defense rights, More importantly, it maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, rather than with the People's Republic of China. The fact that it has no Uighur population and that its population of 21,000 includes no Muslims is, presumably, neither here nor there.
Could this, then, be the answer to the Obama administration's Uighur problem? Perhaps, but if so, it will demonstrate only that, when it comes to cleaning up the mess that is Guantánamo, cowardice, desperation and the least enviable form of pragmatism available are yet another example of Bush and Cheney's despicable legacy.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.