Chinese Muslims sent from Guantanamo to Albania
Lawyer plans trip to check on clients after legal battle ends
WASHINGTON -- The US military said yesterday that it had transferred five Chinese Muslims from its Guantanamo Bay prison to Albania, apparently ending a long legal fight over their fate on the eve of arguments before a federal appeals court.
The five men, who all belong to an ethnic group known as ''Uighurs," had been imprisoned at the base for more than four years. More than a year ago, a military tribunal had determined that none of them had been enemies of the United States after all, and cleared them for release.
However, the US could not send them back to their homeland because the Chinese government has a history of persecuting Uighurs, who have been seeking greater autonomy from the central government. No other country would take them in, either, and they remained stuck in the American prison.
Last December, a federal district judge ruled that it was illegal for the Bush administration to continue to incarcerate the men because it had no basis for holding them.
But the judge ruled that he did not have the power to order the government to release them, saying he could not ask the administration to bring them into the United States for national security reasons. Meanwhile, the State Department kept looking for a third country willing to take them.
Sabin Willett, a Boston-based attorney who represents two of the Uighurs, said the Justice Department abruptly informed him late yesterday that the search was over, and that his clients were no longer at Guantanamo.
Willett had been preparing to argue his clients' case before a federal appeals court on Monday morning. Upon learning the news, he suddenly began making plans to fly to Albania.
''An hour ago I was told by the government that the men have been sent to Albania and are there," Willett said yesterday evening in a telephone interview. ''I have not been able to reach them or anybody who could confirm this in Albania. I hope to [reach them] tomorrow morning, and I'll get on a plane tomorrow night and be there on Sunday."
Albania has a majority-Muslim population. It is in southeastern Europe -- thousands of miles from the Uighurs' native China -- but Willett said he was cautiously optimistic that the five men would be comfortable there.
Willett said he was told by the US government that his clients were being held at the ''national accomodations center for asylum seekers" in Tirana, the Albanian capital. The center is operated by the Albanian interior ministry in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he said.
Beyond that, he knew nothing more.
''It's all very unclear," Willett said. ''They didn't give us any warning. Until we can be sure that the men are safe, I'm worried, but I'm going to be cautiously optimistic about this."
For its part, the Bush administration signaled that it was relieved to have at least found a home for the Uighurs and resolved a case which has generated negative publicity for Guantanamo Bay prison, since the military itself acknowledged that it had held people for nearly five years who were not enemies of the United States.
''The United States has done the utmost to ensure that the Uighurs will be treated humanely upon release," a Pentagon statement said. ''Our key objective has been to resettle the Uighurs in an environment that will permit them to rebuild their lives. Albania will provide this opportunity."