Sep 11, 2009

East Turkestan: First Guantanamo Uyghurs Agree to Go to Palau

Active ImageThree Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay have formally accepted an offer to take up new lives in the Pacific island nation of Palau and could be moved there as early as next month, lawyers say.




Below is an article published by Associated Press :



Three Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay have formally accepted an offer to take up new lives in the Pacific island nation of Palau and could be moved there as early as next month, lawyers say.

They are the first among a group of 13 ethnic Uighurs being held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba who have been offered resettlement in Palau in an arrangement that would clear a major hurdle to President Barack Obama's plans to close the contentious facility.

Negotiations are still under way with the 10 other Uighurs at Guantanamo.

After months of talks with U.S. officials, lawyer George Clarke said his two Uighur clients had recently formally accepted the offer to go to Palau.

"They're excited," Clarke told The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday from Washington. "They want to get the heck out of Guantanamo Bay. They look forward to getting to Palau and getting on with their lives."

Eric Tirschwell, the lawyer for four other Uighurs at Guantanamo, said Wednesday that one of his clients had also accepted the offer and was "looking forward to enjoying the freedom that he deserves and that he's been denied for almost eight years."

The 13 Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs), Turkic Muslims from far western China, have been held by the United States since being captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. The Pentagon determined last year they were not "enemy combatants," but they have been in legal limbo ever since.

Beijing says it considers the group terrorist suspects and wants them returned to China. But Uighur activists claim the group face persecution or death if they are returned there, and U.S. officials have struggled to find a country to take them in.

In June, four Uighur detainees were resettled in Bermuda. The same month, Palau offered to take the remaining 13 Uighur detainees at Guantanamo.

Negotiations have gone on since then, with officials saying some of the issues have included the detainees' fears about the tiny country's ability to protect them from China and whether they would be able to freely practice their religion there.

The lawyers declined to give details of the agreements struck with U.S. officials.

A State Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks with other Uighurs are continuing, confirmed "some of the Uighur detainees have agreed to resettlement in Palau" but declined to give details.

Uighurs who have accepted the offer could be transferred to Palau as soon as October, Clarke said.
Once the detainees have signed off on a formal agreement spelling out the terms of their stay in Palau, Congress must be notified of the intention to move the detainees. If no congressional objections are raised, the transfer can go ahead after 15 days, Clarke said.

Mark Bezner, the top American official in Palau, said Wednesday he had not yet received formal notification on the Uighurs, adding, "perhaps we'll get a confirmation in the next couple of days from Washington."

None of the 10 other Uighur detainees remaining at Guantanamo have ruled out moving to Palau. Attorneys representing the other men declined to comment or did not return messages left by AP.
Palau is a developing country of 20,000 about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines that is dependent on U.S. development funds.

Palau's President Johnson Toribiong said in June that some of the men were concerned about his country's relative proximity to China. U.S. officials insisted they would be safe there.

Clarke has said previously that the detainees had been concerned about whether they would be allowed to travel after getting settled in Palau. His clients hope eventually to make the Hajj, or holy pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Uighurs will not be eligible for Palauan passports but the government has said the men would be free to travel so long as another country accepted them. It's not clear what passports they would have.

No Uighurs currently live in Palau, though there is a Muslim population of about 400 — mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers.

Isaac Soaladaob, chief of staff to Toribiong, said the government had not been informed yet of any formal agreements but that the country was expecting the Uighur relocation plan to go ahead.
"We know that a number of men plan on coming and we are working on the technical aspects of their arrival," Soaladaob said.