As first reported by the Associated Press, six of the remaining 13 Uighurs in Guantánamo have just arrived on the Pacific island of Palau, where they have been given new homes. The AP’s source said that, overnight, police were guarding the house where the men will live, in the heart of the capital, Koror.
This partly solves one of President Obama’s outstanding problems at Guantánamo, as there were 17 Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province) at Guantánamo when Obama took office, and they had already been waiting for three and a half months to be released, after District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered their release into the United States in October 2008. Judge Urbina did so because the government had failed to contest the Uighurs’ habeas corpus petition (after a devastating court defeat in June 2008), because they could not be returned to China, where they were at risk of ill-treatment or worse, because no other country had been found that would take them, and because their continued detention was unconstitutional.
The Bush administration appealed, and, when President Obama took office, he followed the same line, failing to take the opportunity to bring the Uighurs to the States, which would have demonstrated to the American people that they were not terrorists. Bringing the men to the United States would also have demonstrated that the Bush administration made some horrendous mistakes when, as with the Uighurs and countless other prisoners at Guantánamo, it offered bounty payments to its Afghan and Pakistani allies, and failed to provide any screening whatsoever for the prisoners who subsequently ended up in US custody, maintaining, instead, that they were all “enemy combatants,” because the President said they were.
Having backed down at a crucial time — allowing his right-wing detractors to seize the initiative on Guantánamo, reviving Dick Cheney’s unsubstantiated claims that all the Guantánamo prisoners were terrorists — President Obama then went fishing for other nations who were able to resist the wrath of China. In June, four of the Uighurs moved to Bermuda (which is too rich to care about China), and now another six have arrived in Palau (which, conveniently, refuses to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and has diplomatic dealings with Taiwan instead).
Any time innocent men are freed from Guantánamo, the United States claws back a little more of the luster it lost so spectacularly under the Bush administration, but this latest release still leaves seven Uighurs in Guantánamo — not to mention the 60 or so other prisoners who have been cleared for release — and amongst those seven, as the Washington Post reported On October 20, is one man that Palau refused to take. Arkin Mahmud “suffers from serious mental health issues because of his detention and lengthy periods of solitary confinement,” and his brother, Bahtiyar Mahnut, turned down Palau’s offer of a new home for himself, in order to stay with him.
This, of course, means that the two men “could remain in custody indefinitely,” a situation that the Post described as “unconscionable,” and it led to the editors proposing that, because the US “has complete control over the fate of these men and should take full responsibility in righting the situation,” the President should introduce “narrowly crafted legislation that would allow Mr. Mahmud and Mr. Mahnut into the United States, where they could remain together and Mr. Mahmud could get the medical help he needs.”
Following up on the story of the men’s release, the New York Times noted that the six men “are expected to remain [in Palau] while seeking a permanent home elsewhere.” Wells Dixon, who represents three of the men at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the Times, “Palau is courageous to offer our Uighur clients a temporary home. We are hopeful that other countries like Australia and Germany will resettle them permanently.”
And, he could have added, the United States.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.