Guantánamo’s untouchables: What to do with Uighurs

By | June 11, 2009

Guantánamo’s 2The plight of 17 Chinese Muslims ordered released from the terror prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, may be moving toward a solution with their possible resettlement to Palau in the south Pacific.

Relocation to a tropical island may sound enticing to the detainees after seven years of confinement behind fences and razor wire on a parched corner of southeastern Cuba.

But some analysts say it would be a strategic mistake for the Obama administration to send those particular detainees, known as Uighurs, to the Pacific rather than allowing them to resettle on US soil.

These analysts say that if the US expects cooperation from Europe in resettling up to 50 Guantánamo detainees, the Obama administration must first demonstrate its good will by taking in at least some detainees itself. They note that the Uighurs are probably the safest, easiest detainees to resettle in the US – even the Bush administration did not classify them as enemy combatants. Yet their situation has been perhaps the most adversely affected by the recent debate in Congress about bringing detainees to America.

“It is inconceivable that any European country would be willing to take a detainee if the US was not willing to take any itself, even as a token symbol,” says Geneve Mantri of Amnesty International, who is closely tracking Guantánamo resettlement negotiations. “Given the president’s timeline and given the kinds of cases he is left with, it would be hard to see how releasing the easiest cases to a third country [like Palau] would help you.”

The Palau government says it has agreed to temporarily accept the 17 Uighurs. Officials said they would do so as a humanitarian gesture and to help President Obama make good on his promise to close the Guantánamo detention camp by next January.

There are roughly 240 detainees currently held at the camp. Officials have estimated that 20 to 80 will face trial either in a US civilian courtroom or before a military commission. Roughly 50 have been cleared for resettlement.

Legal challenges waged on behalf of the Uighurs brought procedures at Guantánamo under close judicial scrutiny. The men say they were sold into US captivity by Pakistani bounty hunters in 2001 and 2002. They admitted being present in camps run by fellow Chinese Muslims in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. But they deny any link to Al-Qaeda or terrorism.

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