Bill Delahunt and Sabin Willett

Innocent detainees need a home

By Bill Delahunt and Sabin Willett
April 2, 2009
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ONE OF THE most pressing issues the Obama administration will face when it closes the Guantanamo detention center is what to do with the 63 detainees cleared for release or transfer who cannot return home.

A stay at Guantanamo - justified or not - can mean brutal treatment upon return. Under the Convention Against Torture, the United States can not repatriate detainees to countries where they will be tortured. As a result, many men remain at Guantanamo until the US government can find them a safe home. To resettle these men will require assistance from friendly democracies. Undoubtedly, a number of foreign nations will demand that some of these innocent detainees be resettled in the United States before they act similarly.

Seventeen Uighurs are entering their eighth year of imprisonment at Guantanamo. The Uighurs are from China's far-western province of Xinjiang, which lies along the ancient Silk Road. A largely Muslim population whose ancestors migrated from the west, the Uighurs' language and culture have Turkic roots. Uighurs have suffered severe political and religious persecution by the Chinese government, which the United States has long condemned. To escape political, religious, and economic oppression, the Uighurs fled China, making their way to a Uighur village in Afghanistan. The refugees often took shelter in the relative statelessness of pre-war Afghanistan while they tried to obtain documents to enter other countries.

When the Afghanistan War began in October 2001, the Uighurs fled the US bombing campaign, crossing into Pakistan. At the time, the United States was offering substantial sums of cash to Pakistani villagers who turned over "terrorists." Many were quick to oblige. In late 2001, Pakistani villagers lured the Uighurs to a mosque, where they were surrounded and arrested by Pakistani security forces. The Pakistanis turned over the current Uighur detainees to the United States for the bounty price of $5,000 apiece. In May 2002, the US government transported the Uighurs to Guantanamo Bay. Our government quickly learned it had been sold the Uighur detainees by mistake and told the Uighurs they would soon be released.

Despite the Uighurs' innocence, they have remained in custody. The Uighurs will face almost certain torture if they are returned to China. While Albania previously resettled five men, as many as 100 countries have refused to accept the remaining Uighur detainees in the face of Chinese opposition.

Last year the Uighurs' fortunes appeared to have changed. In October a federal district court judge ordered the Uighurs be released into the United States. Judge Ricardo Urbina concluded that the "unilateral carte blanche authority the political branches purportedly wield over the Uighurs is not in keeping with our system of governance."

We agree. We have continually advocated that these men be brought to the United States and have worked with the Uighur-American community to promote their cause. The small Uighur-American community has pledged to aid the detainees with jobs and housing.

Unfortunately, Urbina's opinion was overturned by an appellate court that ruled the Obama administration - not the courts - must decide the Uighurs' fate. Until a decision is made, the Uighurs literally have no place to go.

The only realistic option is for the Uighurs to be resettled in the United States. There is no evidence the Uighurs plotted against the United States or were our enemies. The Uighur detainees have endured enough. It is time to make the situation right.

This solution, which has garnered bipartisan support, would represent a clear break from the past. We should seize this moment to lead by example once again by assisting current resettlement efforts. Many allies face publics that are skeptical of accepting those who were unfairly labeled as terrorists by our government. Let's face it - if we are unable to even accept and find a home for 17 innocent Uighurs, how can we expect other nations to take any of the Guantanamo detainees cleared for release?

As the United States continues on the difficult path to resettlement, it should bear in mind that sometimes the best way to lead is by setting an example for the world to follow. We feel confident that once the United States has opened its doors to the Uighurs, other members of the world community will join in the effort to resettle the numerous men at Guantanamo who still need a new country to call home.

Bill Delahunt is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight Subcommittee and represents the 10th District of Massachusetts. Sabin Willett is a partner at Bingham McCutchen, which represents Guantanamo prisoners.

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