Four Uighurs held at Guantanamo freed, resettled in Bermuda

Action draws complaints from Britain, China

Prime Minister Ewart Brown of Bermuda (right) drew criticism for not consulting the British government before accepting the Uighurs. Prime Minister Ewart Brown of Bermuda (right) drew criticism for not consulting the British government before accepting the Uighurs. (Akil Simmons/The Royal Gazette)
By Devlin Barrett and Matthew Lee
Associated Press / June 12, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Four Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay prison were freed yesterday and resettled in Bermuda, sparking complaints from China and Britain even as the Obama administration tried to iron out details for sending more detainees to the Pacific island of Palau.

The four were among 17 Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. They remained at the military detention center in Cuba even after the US government had determined they weren't enemy combatants and should be released. Their fate was in limbo for months while courts and nations debated their future.

Their release comes as the administration scrambles to meet President Obama's pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by early next year.

Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown said the men will be allowed to live in Bermuda, a British territory in the Atlantic, initially as refugees but they would be permitted to pursue citizenship and would have the right to work, travel, and "potentially settle elsewhere."

Brown said negotiations with Washington over settling the Uighurs began last month and he had no security concerns because the men had been cleared by US courts. But Britain, which handles Bermuda's defense, security, and foreign affairs expressed displeasure at the move.

In his comments, Brown said he had met with the British governor general of the island who he said was "seeking to further assess the ramifications of this move before allowing the government of Bermuda to fully implement this action."

In London, a Foreign Office spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy, said Bermuda considered the resettlement an internal immigration matter, but added that Britain should have been consulted.

"We've underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted [Britain] on whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility," she said.

At the State Department, spokesman Ian Kelly said the transfer had been arranged in talks between US and Bermudan officials. He said Britain was consulted at some point but would not say when. But he added that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had discussed the matter yesterday with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

"We dealt directly with the government of Bermuda to make this happen," he told reporters. Kelly added that US officials were "confident that we can work these things through with the government of [Britain]."

Bermuda's acceptance of the four detainees marks the first time since 2006 that the United States has successfully resettled any of Guantanamo's population of Uighurs. China strongly opposed their release, contending they were part of a Chinese separatist movement, and warned nations against taking them.

Thirteen other Uighurs, who are from a Chinese region that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain to be released. Arrangements are being made for them to be sent to Palau, whose president this week said his country, which does not have diplomatic relations with China, was willing to accept some or all of the Uighurs.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong said yesterday that his tiny Pacific nation's tradition of hospitality prompted the decision to take in the Uighurs.

He denied his government's move was influenced by any massive aid package from Washington, saying that the Uighurs have become "international vagabonds" who deserve a fresh start.

Toribiong said the Uighur detainees from China's arid west would start their new lives in a halfway house to see how they acclimatize to his tropical archipelago west of the Philippines.

Beijing said yesterday that all 17 Uighurs are terrorists and should be handed back to China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China "opposes any country taking any of these terrorist suspects."

US officials refused to return the Uighurs to China out of concerns they would be tortured or executed.