Sunday, November 1, 2009

Uighurs arrive in Palau from Guantanamo Bay

SIX Chinese Muslim Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay arrived in the Pacific island nation of Palau today.
It represents the latest step in US President Barack Obama's struggle to close the controversial prison.

The men, who had been held at the US naval base in Cuba for more than seven years despite being cleared of all charges, arrived here “to begin rebuilding their lives in freedom,” New York-based lawyers for three of the former prisoners said.

They had been cleared by the previous George W. Bush administration after it decided to no longer treat them as “enemy combatants,” the Justice Department said.

It identified the men as Ahmad Tourson, Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman, Edham Mamet, Anwar Hassan, Dawut Abdurehim and Adel Noori.

“These men want nothing more than to live peaceful, productive lives in a free, democratic nation safe from oppression by the Chinese,” said Eric Tirschwell of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, which represented the former detainees along with the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

“Thanks to Palau, which has graciously offered them a temporary home, they now have that chance. We hope that another country will soon step forward to provide them permanent sanctuary.”

Palau President Johnson Toribiong, who met the Uighers on their arrival, said they would put through a structured programme to assist their transition to civil life.

“The government of Palau will provide medical care, room and board, and education to the Uighurs until such time as they are prepared to integrate into the Palauan community,” Johnson said in a statement.

“The Uighurs will be taught conversational and written English, educated about the culture and laws of Palau, and instructed in skills that will enable them to find a job and earn a living in Palau.”

The former prisoners were among 22 Uighurs _ a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from China's remote Xinjiang region _ living at a self-contained camp in Afghanistan when the US-led invasion of the country began in October 2001.

They said they had fled to Afghanistan to escape persecution from China, which wants the men returned home to be tried, saying they belong to an Islamic separatist movement.

Amid US administration fears that they could face torture if returned to China, five were released in Albania in 2006, and four were resettled in Bermuda this year. The others have remained in legal limbo.

Palau, which has no diplomatic relations with China, has agreed to take up to 12 Uighurs. Seven remain at Guantanamo, where 215 “war on terror” suspects are still held.

Many of the 21,000 residents of Palau have expressed unease about the former detainees resettling in their tiny country, which only has a smattering of Muslim inhabitants.

The Uighurs now in Palau and those still at Guantanamo contend they should be released in the United States and the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear their case early next year.

A federal judge last year ordered that the men be released to US soil, where families from the large Uighur community are willing to host them.

But Obama has signed into law a bill passed by Congress that bars the release of any Guantanamo detainees to US soil.

Matthew Olsen, executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force charged with reviewing the detainee cases, said the United States was “grateful to the Republic of Palau for its assistance in the resettlement of these individuals.”

The move comes as Obama faces a litany of challenges to meet his self-assigned deadline to close the prison by January.

Olsen's team has struggled to persuade other countries to take some of the captives, with only a trickle of prisoners transferred since Obama's inauguration in January.

Since the notorious jail was opened in January 2002 under former president George W. Bush, more than 550 detainees have been transferred to other nations.

Palau lies about 500 miles (800 kms) east of the Philippines, and was administered by the United States until independence in 1994.

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