Thursday, July 09, 2009

Uighur detainees at Gitmo frustrated with Canadian refugee process

Uighur detainees at Gitmo frustrated with Canadian refugee process

By Jennifer Ditchburn – 49 minutes ago

OTTAWA — Three Uighurs detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay have applied to Canada for asylum but the processing of their requests has mysteriously ground to a halt.

And American and Canadian officials offer contradictory views on the status of the refugee process launched by the men from China's troubled Xinjiang region.

The Uighurs have been living in Gitmo limbo for six years as they cannot go back to China and the United States will not resettle them.

A source within the American administration told The Canadian Press that Canadian officials this spring requested consular access to the three men.

"The United States government responded positively to the request and asked for further information to arrange the visit to the Gitmo detention facility."

But there was no response from the Canadians, the source said.

But that's not what Canadians told lawyers for the three Muslim men.

Eric Tirschwell, a New York-based attorney representing two of the Uighurs, said Canadian officials informed them this spring that their Jamaican-based immigration officer couldn't get permission to visit Guantanamo.

"Our clients would welcome the opportunity to meet with Canadian immigration officials and it is our understanding that the United States government would allow that and facilitate that if the Canadian immigration officials made the request," Tirschwell said in an interview.

George Clarke, a lawyer for the third man, was more blunt.

"The (U.S.) State Department, I can guarantee you this, will not in any way block access to Guantanamo to the Canadians. I would stake everything on that's not true."

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney would not comment on the details of the case.

But Alykhan Velshi noted that refugee applications can take more than three years to process, with interviews normally occurring toward the end of the process. The three applications were made within the last year.

"Our position remains that there will be no extraordinary political intervention to expedite these applications," Velshi said in an email.

"That said, every application will be considered on its individual merits, on a case-by-case basis. These cases will be examined individually for eligibility and admissibility under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act."

The three are part of a remaining group of 13 Uighurs who were rounded up in and around Afghanistan six years ago and labelled terrorists. American courts have ordered them released, declaring them no security threat to the United States and offering no proof of terrorist activity or affiliation.

The Obama administration has faced opposition from Republicans and some Democrats who say alleged terrorists should not be resettled on American soil. But the men cannot be returned to their Chinese homeland, for fear of torture or death.

They hail from the same territory that is currently in the grips of bloody ethnic violence. Chinese authorities have dealt harshly with any Uighurs critical of Beijing or supportive of a Uighur homeland.

Washington has asked other countries about taking the men. Only Bermuda and Albania have agreed, taking small groups. Other countries have faced pressure from China to ignore the requests, and are reluctant to legitimize the Guantanamo mess by giving Washington a hand with the problem.

Documents prepared for the foreign affairs minister in the fall of 2006 said no formal decision to "discourage or encourage the US" on the resettlement issue had been taken. The documents were obtained under the Access to Information Act.

But that position changed this spring.

After a visit by Daniel Fried, Washington's special envoy for the closure of the Guantanamo prisons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office made it crystal clear Canada was not interested in any special deals to take the men.

Question period talking points, also released through the Access to Information Act, hint the government is concerned about possible terrorist links.

"Our number one focus is protecting the safety and security of Canadians," reads one document.

It goes on to note that individuals are inadmissible to Canada when there are "reasonable grounds to believe they have engaged in terrorism or acts of espionage or subversion against a democratic government."

Clarke draws a link between the political decision made this spring and the immigration process.

"The best I can tell, there is no hope that the Canadian (refugee) process will somehow trump the political decision that has been made," Clarke said.

Government officials wrote in 2006 that the men were "likely inadmissible under Canadian immigration law."

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