Published on
The Boston Globe

Freedom on a Small Island with a Big Heart

Sabin Willett

One afternoon last week, four men from central Asia walked into a shop in Bermuda to buy pants.

Refugees from Chinese communism, these Uighur men were swept up by US forces in 2001. They were sent to Guantanamo. But they were not terrorists and not our enemies. The military soon realized its mistake and quietly tried to resettle them abroad. The efforts failed: No one wanted to brook the Chinese for the sake of a few dissidents whom the United States would not accept itself.

Years later, after the Uighurs' plight emerged in court, the Bush administration formally admitted they were not enemies. A judge ordered their release.

Then, a new president, who had campaigned on a vow to close Guantanamo, was on the point of admitting them to this country. But suddenly Congress was stampeded by the right, and President Obama ducked for cover. Congressional Democrats and many Republicans had applauded the call to close Guantanamo, but when it came to action, they ran for the exits. There were a few exceptions, like Senators Dick Durbin and Pat Leahy, and Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. But they seemed like schoolteachers after the bell had rung, trying to bring order to a ruck of noisy children, looking in vain for help to the principal's office.

And so the Uighurs, cleared in every imaginable way, were stranded at the prison.

Bermudian Premier Ewart Brown saw the humanitarian crisis that lay beneath the politics. He offered to accept four of them into the island's guest worker program. At 3 a.m. on June 11, I watched on the Guantanamo airstrip as four innocent men were unshackled for the last time. They climbed aboard a charter aircraft. And when the sun rose, they stepped down to free soil in Bermuda, smiling broadly.

One said, "This is a small island, but it has a big heart."

Others will have to judge the American heart. Within hours, the lunatic fringe was feeding lies to Bermudian media. CNN joined in the mugging with a false report from a Bush-era mouthpiece that the men had "trained in Al Qaeda camps." (Before meeting interrogators, the men had never heard of Al Qaeda, and in court the Bush administration itself conceded that there was no Al Qaeda link. But in the feeding frenzy, truth did not matter.)

A political crisis exploded in Bermuda's parliament. The minority called for a vote of no-confidence in the government. The British loudly protested not being asked permission.

At home, Congress has already said it prefers that men cleared by courts remain in prison forever, rather than having America participate in the shutdown. Congress's idea of a solution is that we are the broom, and our allies the dustpan.

There is talk that the tiny Pacific island of Palau may provide asylum to other Uighurs. The small places are not so timid as we are. They don't stampede as easily. But whether they can fully solve the problems seems doubtful. There are many innocents left to free, and the political row in Bermuda will discourage others from participating in an enterprise that America lacks the character to join.

How Obama will make good on his pledge to close the prison remains unclear. The Democrats may yet create America's gulag - a forever prison from which innocents never leave.

In Hamilton parish that afternoon, as four bearded men entered a shop, a talk show was playing on the radio. The host proclaimed that terrorist jihadists had been admitted to Bermuda and were now roaming Front Street. Shrill callers condemned the government.

The shopkeeper stared at his four new customers. He glanced at the radio speaker in the ceiling. He looked at the men again. Then at the speaker.

Someone joked about Bermuda shorts and knee socks. The Uighurs smiled and demurred - might they have long pants instead? Everyone laughed.

The shopkeeper smiled broadly. "Never mind about them," he said, waving at the radio speaker. "Welcome to the island!"

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Sabin Willett is a partner at Bingham McCutchen, which represents six Uighur prisoners.

Share This Article

More in: