[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/06/11/uighurs.gitmo/art.palau.cnn.jpg caption="The map shows the Pacific island nation of Palau in relation to China. Palau has also agreed to take some Uighurs."]
Jill Dougherty | Bio
Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Four men held at the prison camp in Guantanamo for almost eight years have just been sent to live in Bermuda, land of Bermuda shorts, golf courses and white sandy beaches.
For months the Obama administration has been scouring the world to find a home for the Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority group from western China. The Chinese government considers them terrorists and that is what the U.S. initially thought, since some of them were members of a group allied with Al Qaeda which the U.S. labels a terrorist organization. But in 2008 the Bush administration determined that none of the Uighur detainees were “enemy combatants.”
The U.S. ruled out sending them back to China out of fear they would be tortured. Northern Virginia, which has a sizeable Uighur community, wasn’t possible either because of intense domestic political lobbying against having “terrorists” living down the street from Americans.
“We’re extremely grateful to the Government of Bermuda for its assistance in resettling these detainees,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday.
But there’s a hitch: Bermuda is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom and the U.S. dealt directly with Bermuda, informing London about the deal only minutes before the men were transferred to the island. The U.K., the United States’ closest ally, is not pleased.
A British official familiar with the agreement but not authorized to speak publicly tells CNN “we feel we should have been consulted” before the deal was struck. A U.S. official, on background, admits the British feel blindsided
Asked about the rift, Kelly at the State Department said, “we understand that there are some concerns about some of the details of the resettlement, and we're confident that we can work these things through with the government of the U.K... I don’t think we bypassed anyone.”
In 2006 five other Guantanamo Uighurs found a home in Albania; thirteen more still remain in Guantanamo. The U.S. is working on an agreement that could send those men more than 8,000 miles away to the Pacific paradise of Palau. The president of Palau says he is happy to honor to a U.S. request on humanitarian grounds.
The tiny Uighur-American community says it’s pleased some of the men are free but the director of the Uighur American Association, Alim Saytoff, tells CNN his organization is worried the men will be “on their own.” Bermuda has no Uighur community. Many of the Guantanamo detainees, he says, speak only the Uighur language or some Chinese. A few have rudimentary knowledge of English.
Bermuda is just a two and a half-hour flight from U.S. shores. Administration officials say not to worry; the Uighurs won’t be able to come to the U.S. unless the U.S. government lets them, thanks to “biometric identification, passenger screening systems, and watch lists.”
As for the Uighurs who may end up living in Palau, Congressman Bill Delahunt, at a hearing on the Uighurs, has some encouraging words: “Wherever these 17 men end up and, hopefully, they’re on their way to that island in the Pacific which I understand has great surfing…whatever happens, it is important for us to learn from this.”
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