By Peter Finn and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 12, 2009
The Obama administration has all but abandoned plans to allow Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been cleared for release to live in the United States, administration officials said yesterday, a decision that reflects bipartisan congressional opposition to admitting such prisoners but complicates efforts to persuade European allies to accept them.
Four Uighur detainees, Chinese Muslims who were incarcerated at the U.S. military prison in Cuba for more than seven years, arrived early yesterday in Bermuda, where they will become foreign guest workers. An administration official said the United States is engaged in negotiations with other countries, including Palau, an island nation in the western Pacific, to find places for the remaining 13 Uighurs held at Guantanamo.
The Uighurs, who were ordered released by a federal judge last year, never counted America as an enemy, according to the men's lawyers and human rights groups, giving the administration grounds to argue that they should live in the United States. Picked up in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002, the Uighurs were later cleared of the "enemy combatant" label but remained in minimum-security confinement at Guantanamo.
Attempting to settle non-Uighur detainees in the United States would generate even greater congressional opposition, and the administration has decided not to pursue it broadly, an administration official said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. But he said there may yet be "a few" candidates for settlement in the United States among the dozens of Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release.
Congressional Democrats yesterday reached agreement on a war-funding bill that would allow detainees to be sent to the United States for trial. The draft bill included no provision for prolonged detention without trial, a step that President Obama has said will be necessary to incarcerate detainees who are too dangerous to release but who cannot be prosecuted.
The four released Uighurs -- Huzaifa Parhat, 38, Abdul Semet, 32, Abdul Nasser, 32, and Jalal Jalaladin, 29 -- were flown out of Guantanamo on a chartered plane early yesterday and are staying in a guesthouse in Bermuda.
"They are thrilled to be free and trying to get a sense of where they are," said Susan Baker Manning, a lawyer for the four men who accompanied them on the flight. "They are understandably very eager to put their lives back together."
Nasser thanked the government and people of Bermuda, which is a British territory. "Growing up under communism," he said, "we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring."
British officials, however, expressed displeasure that they were not consulted about the transfer. A Foreign Office spokesperson in London questioned "whether this falls within [Bermuda's] competence or is a foreign affairs or security issue for which the Bermuda Government do not have delegated responsibility."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later discussed the matter with Foreign Secretary David Miliband to assuage British concerns.
Shortly before the announcement of the transfer to Bermuda, Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called the Uighur detainees "terrorist suspects" and insisted they be returned to China. The Obama administration has ruled that out, fearing they could be tortured or executed.
Two other Guantanamo detainees, an Iraqi and a Chadian, were released and arrived in their countries yesterday. The Chadian, Mohammed El Gharani, was the youngest detainee at Guantanamo. He was 14 when he was picked up in Pakistan in 2001 and turned over to U.S. authorities.
"It could be a big week for Gitmo," said a second administration official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, adding that there is a possibility that as many as four more detainees could be transferred in the next couple of days. The administration is also finalizing a deal with Saudi Arabia to accept some of the nearly 100 Yemenis who are among the 232 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, U.S. and Saudi officials said.
The news that the Uighur detainees would not be transferred to the United States was greeted with a mix of relief and disappointment by Uighurs who reside in Northern Virginia, some of whom had been preparing for the arrival of the detainees.
"Here we have a big community," said Elshat Hassan, 47, a former university professor, who came to the United States in 2006. "We have lots of Uighurs and organizations. We are willing to help them in any aspect of their lives. It is much better if they were resettled in Virginia."
More than 300 Uighurs, believed to be the largest concentration in the country, live in the Washington area. They have trickled in over the past 40 years from Xinjiang, a Chinese province where their movements are closely tracked and outward religious displays are banned.
Hassan said he had left a one-bedroom apartment in McLean for a larger one in Alexandria in the hopes of hosting at least one of the detainees.
But opposition on Capitol Hill to freeing detainees has dramatically intensified since January, when Obama announced plans to close the military prison within a year. Virginia lawmakers, including Sen. James Webb (D) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), say they oppose Uighur resettlement as a matter of national security. Some of the Uighur detainees had received rudimentary military instruction at an Afghan camp, which some critics have described as a terrorist training camp but which the detainees' lawyers have said was a village of Uighur refugees.
Wolf, whose Northern Virginia district is home to many Uighurs, has been among the community's closest allies in Congress. But he has found himself at odds with it over this issue.
"There is a clear distinction between those individuals who have received training as terrorists and the Uighurs who are here, who yearn for democracy and fundamental freedom and rights," Wolf told about 100 advocates last month at the Capitol during a meeting of the World Uyghur Congress, an international coalition of expatriate groups.
Obama said recently that 50 detainees have been cleared for release as part of an ongoing review of each detainee's case. Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the number cleared for release is now "substantially higher" than 50, but he was not able to provide an exact number.
State Department special envoy Daniel Fried visited Palau last week, and a delegation from the country is on its way to Guantanamo to interview other Uighur detainees this weekend. But military and administration officials said Palau would not be taking all of the remaining Uighurs at Guantanamo.
Fried also visited Australia last week, but officials declined to say if the United States is close to a deal with its Pacific ally to accept detainees.
Fried also negotiated with Germany, which has a Uighur population in Munich. But Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble balked at any transfer and pointedly asked U.S. officials why they were not accepting the Uighurs themselves if, as they insisted, they were not dangerous, according to German reports.
According to Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who authored a report on closing Guantanamo, "Once it becomes clear no detainees will be settled in the U.S., potentially you could hear doors slamming all over Europe."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Del Quentin Wilber and Steve Hendrix and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.