While everyone was looking at a map, trying to work out exactly where Palau is, following the announcement on Tuesday that Guantánamo's 17 Uighur prisoners were to be resettled there, it now transpires that four of the men have been quietly flown to Bermuda instead.
This is rather a surprise, to put it mildly. The Uighurs -- Muslims from China's oppressed Xinjiang province, who were cleared of being "enemy combatants" last year -- have, as I have reported at length, been in a disturbing legal limbo since Barack Obama took office, as the new administration repeatedly failed to find the necessary courage to do the right thing and resettle them in the United States (as ordered by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina last October).
Instead, senior officials cowered in the face of the poisonous -- and, to be honest, libelous -- venom spewed forth by Guantánamo's many defenders in Congress and in the right-wing media, who have popped up to trail around behind Dick Cheney like a zombie reenactment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Moreover, the administration also resorted to defending a ruling that overturned Judge Urbina's stout defense of Constitutional values, siding with Judge A. Raymond Randolph in the court of appeals and in a petition to the Supreme Court asking the highest court in the land not to look at the Uighurs' case. This was in spite of the fact that Judge Randolph, who would rather eat his own gavel than allow a judge to order the government to allow wrongly imprisoned men into the United States, defended every wayward proposal put his way by the Bush administration, only to see them all overturned by the Supreme Court.
What's astonishing about the choice of Bermuda as the new home for four men from north western China is not its location -- it is, after all, not a million miles away from Cuba, and the Uighurs must be used to the climate by now -- but the fact that it is a British Overseas Territory.
According to London's Times, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reacted with ill-disguised fury to the news of the men's resettlement, because Bermuda, "Britain's oldest remaining dependency, is one of 14 overseas territories that come under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, which retains direct responsibility for such matters as foreign policy and security." An FCO spokesman said, "We've underlined to the Bermuda Government that they should have consulted with the United Kingdom as to whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue, for which the Bermuda Government do not have delegated responsibility." He added, "We have made clear to the Bermuda Government the need for a security assessment, which we are now helping them to carry out, and we will decide on further steps as appropriate."
According to the Times, potential conflict with China, which has made repeated demands for the return of the Uighurs, means that the Bermuda government "could now be forced to send them back to Cuba or risk a grave diplomatic crisis" -- although I must admit that it seems possible to me that the Uighurs' resettlement may actually have been negotiated between the governments of the U.S., the U.K. and Bermuda, and that the FCO's "fury" is actually a cover for a pretty watertight case of "plausible deniability."
Before this apparent spat blew up, news of the men's unexpected move to Bermuda leaked out on Thursday morning, after the Uighurs' lawyers reported that the men had arrived in Bermuda shortly after 6 a.m., and were accompanied on a charter flight from Guantánamo by two of their lawyers, Sabin Willett and Susan Baker Manning. After disembarking, one of the men, Abdul Nasser, who, throughout his detention, was described by the Pentagon as Abdul Helil Mamut, thanked their new hosts for accepting them. "Growing up in communism," he said, "we always dreamed of living in peace and working in a free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring."
As a Justice Department press release explained, "These detainees, who were subject to release as a result of court orders, had been cleared for release by the prior administration, which determined they would no longer treat them as enemy combatants. The detainees were again cleared for release this year after review by the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force," which, the press release noted, included "a threat evaluation." The DoJ also made a point of stating, "According to available information, these individuals did not travel to Afghanistan with the intent to take any hostile action against the United States."
In a statement on the website of the Uighurs' lawyers, who had been
tireless in promoting their clients' innocence, Sabin Willett wrote,
"We are deeply grateful to the government and the people of Bermuda for
this act of grace. Nations need good friends. When political
opportunists blocked justice in our own country, Bermuda has reminded
her old friend, America, what justice is." Susan Baker Manning, added,
"These men should never have been at Guantánamo. They were picked up by
mistake. And when the U.S. government realized its mistake, it
continued to imprison them merely because they are refugees. We are
grateful to Bermuda for this humanitarian act."
The lawyers also explained that the men will probably have an easier time adapting to their new life than the five other Uighurs who were rehoused in Albania in 2006. Unlike Albania, Bermuda is a wealthy country, and, in addition, the men "have been approved to participate in Bermuda's guest worker program for foreigners."
Who are the four Uighurs?
So who are these men, whose proposed release into the United States caused such a virulent response? As the lawyers explained, in addition to Abdul Nasser, they are Huzaifa Parhat, Abdul Semet (identified by the Pentagon as Emam Abdulahat) and Jalal Jalaladin (identified by the Pentagon as Abdullah Abdulquadirakhun).
Of the four, Parhat is the only one whose name was known outside Guantánamo. In his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (a one-sided military review board, convened to assess whether, on capture, he had been correctly designated as an "enemy combatant," who could be held without charge or trial), he explained that he arrived at the settlement in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains (where the Uighurs had been living until it was bombed by U.S. forces following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan) in May 2001, and refuted allegations that it was a facility operated by a militant group that was funded by Osama bin Laden and Taliban.
He also made a heartfelt statement about the Uighurs' support for the United States, explaining that, "from the time of our great-grandparents centuries ago, we have never been against the United States and we do not want to be against the United States," and adding, "I can represent for 25 million Uighur people by saying that we will not do anything against the United States. We are willing to be united with the United States. I think that the United States understands the Uighur people much better than other people." In addition, he was one of several Uighur prisoners to mention threats made by Chinese interrogators who had been allowed to visit Guantánamo, and also to point out that he had had no contact whatsoever with any members of his family.
However, Parhat's story is particularly significant, because last June, after the Supreme Court concluded years of stalling and legislative reversals on the part of the administration by ruling that the prisoners had constitutional habeas corpus rights, his case was finally reviewed by three judges in a U.S. District Court, who demolished the case against him (and, by extension, against the other Uighurs), by ruling as "invalid" the tribunal's decision that he was an "enemy combatant." The judges criticized the government for relying on flimsy and unsubstantiated allegations and associations (primarily to do with the alleged militant group), and in a memorable passage compared the government's argument that its evidence was reliable because it was mentioned in three different classified documents to a line from a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
This led the government to concede that it would "serve no purpose" to continue trying to prove that any of the Uighurs were "enemy combatants," and, in turn, led to Judge Ricardo Urbina's ruling last October that the Uighurs were to be released into the United States, when he stated, simply, "Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful" -- although this, of course, was subsequently reversed by the appeals court judges with whom, since coming to power, the Obama administration has maintained an unhealthy judicial alliance.
Abdul Semet told his tribunal that he left home "to escape from the torturing, darkness and suffering of the Chinese government," and "wanted to go to some other country to live in peace." He added, "The government, if they suspect us for anything, would torture and beat us, and fine us money. Lately, the young Uighurs would get caught just doing exercising. They would stop us and say it was not our culture, and put us in jail for it." He also explained, "For the females, if they have [more than] one child, they open them up and throw the baby in the trash."
Speaking of the Uighurs' settlement in the Afghan mountains, he explained that he spent most of his time in "construction," mending the settlement's decrepit buildings, and indicated that he and his compatriots would have been happy to assist the United States if their home had not been bombed. "If the Americans went to Afghanistan and didn't bomb our camp," he said, "then we would be happy and support America; we would've stayed there continuously. The reason we went to Afghanistan doesn't mean we have a relationship with al-Qaeda or some other organization; we went there for peace and not to be turned back over to the Chinese."
Jalal Jalaladin was one of several of the Uighur prisoners to explain that he ended up in the settlement because he had been thwarted in his attempts to get from Pakistan to Turkey to look for work, and where he also believed that the government would give him citizenship. He explained to his tribunal that he got no further than Kyrgyzstan, where he found a job in a bazaar, and that some locals then gave him an address in Pakistan, where a Uighur businessman told him about the settlement. As he was having difficulties getting a visa for Iran, he decided to go to there instead.
And finally, Abdul Nasser gave an explanation about the "training" at the settlement that ought to make the fearful politicians and Conservative pundits in the United States ashamed. He explained that he had arrived at the settlement in June 2001, and that, during his time there -- until it was bombed -- he trained on the camp's one and only gun for no more than a few days. "I don't know if it was an AK-47," he said. "It was an old rifle, and I trained for a couple of days."
Moreover, Abdul Nasser reinforced what another of the men, Abdulghappar (who is still held in Guantánamo), had explained, when asked if it had ever been his intention to fight against the U.S. or its allies. "I have one point: a billion Chinese enemies, that is enough for me," Abdulghappar said. "Why would I get more enemies?" Abdul Nasser explained, "I went to the camp to train because the Chinese government was torturing my country, my people, and they could not do anything. I was trying to protect my country, my country's independence and my freedom. From international law, training is not illegal in order to protect your freedom and independence. I did it for my country."
While waiting to see how Guantánamo's critics respond to this story of a young man training to protect his freedom and independence (which is something they should surely recognize), and while also wondering if Palau is still prepared to take the other 13 Uighurs (before June 25, presumably, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to meet to discuss whether the courts have any authority to order Guantánamo prisoners to be released into the U.S.), I'd like to wish these four men the best of luck in settling into their new home. For those of us who have studied the story of Guantánamo closely, it has actually been apparent all along that the Uighurs should never have been held at all, and that the Pentagon was only interested in them because of the intelligence that they thought they might provide about the activities of the Chinese government.