East Turkestan: Guantánamo Detainees Transferred
The United States has won an agreement to transfer up to 17 Chinese Muslims from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Palau, a sparsely populated archipelago in the North Pacific, according to a statement released by Palau to The Associated Press on Wednesday [3 June 2009].
The president of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, said his government had “agreed to accommodate the United States of America’s request” to “temporarily resettle” the detainees, members of the Uighur ethnic group, “subject to periodic review.” Palau, the president said, would be “honored and proud” to take them in a “humanitarian gesture.”
The agreement opens the door to the largest single transfer of Guantánamo prisoners and is the first major deal on detainees since President Obama pledged soon after taking office in January  to close the prison within a year.
It also gives Mr. Obama some relief on an issue that has become a political hot button among Congressional Republicans and even some Democrats, who have noisily protested against releasing what they call potentially dangerous extremists on American soil or transferring them to prisons in the United States.
The 17 Uyghurs have been in a state of limbo since fall, when a federal district court ordered that they be released in the United States and an appeals court overturned the ruling. The Bush administration said that it did not classify the men as enemy combatants.
But the United States had not been able to persuade any country to take them, despite contacting about 100 governments. Washington had said it would not hand them over to China, which has demanded their return, because it feared they would be persecuted or even executed.
The Chinese government accuses some Uyghurs of leading an Islamic separatist movement in far western China, and Beijing has pressed many countries not to accept the detainees. Palau, which was a United States trust territory until its independence in 1994, maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than China, making it less vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.
The State Department said last week that Daniel Fried, a diplomat who is leading the effort to resettle Guantánamo’s detainees, had visited Palau and Australia. But on Tuesday [2 June 2009], the department declined to confirm that a deal with Palau was close.
“We’re working closely with our friends and allies regarding the resettlement and repatriation of Guantánamo detainees,” said the State Department spokesman, Ian C. Kelly. “As a matter of policy, we’re not going to comment on our bilateral discussions with individual countries.”
Three Obama administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity Tuesday [2 June 2009] because the negotiations were not yet complete, said it was not certain how many of the Uyghurs would be settled in Palau. With barely 20,000 people, Palau, about 500 miles east of the Philippines, is one of the world’s least-populated nations, made up of 8 main islands and 250 smaller ones.
One administration official said that if Palau agreed to take “a large chunk” of the 17, it would be easier to find homes for the rest, either in Australia, Germany or the United States. Australia and Germany already have Uyghur populations, making those countries obvious candidates.
Australia recently agreed to review a request to accept some Uyghurs, after twice rejecting from the United States. Germany has been reluctant to accept any detainees unless the United States takes some, too.
The Obama administration has been negotiating actively with European and other governments to resettle 50 detainees, who it says are cleared for transfer. Since Mr. Obama took office, the United States has transferred one detainee to France and one to Britain. On Tuesday [2 June 2009], it sent the first detainee to the United States to face charges in federal court.
The United States has pledged $200 million in long-term development aid to Palau. But a senior State Department official flatly denied it was a quid pro quo for the detainee deal.
Palau is known more for its tropical scenery and scuba diving than for its involvement in international politics. But despite its tiny size, it is diverse, with Philippine and Chinese populations. The Uyghurs, some say, could do a lot worse for themselves.
“What they will encounter in Palau is paradise,” said Stuart Beck, an American lawyer who is Palau’s permanent United Nations representative. “From the time the first British vessel hit a reef in Palau in 1783, it has welcomed refugees.”