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Allies open their doors to Chinese Muslim Uighurs held at Guantanamo

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NEWS THAT some of the 17 Uighur Muslims wrongly detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002 have found homes brings both relief and disappointment.

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The men were cleared for release by the Bush administration years ago; the federal courts that reviewed their cases concluded that there was no evidence to justify their imprisonment in the first place. Yet they languished behind bars because the United States could not return them to their native China for fear they would be tortured, or worse. Some 100 countries declined U.S. requests to take the Uighurs, in part because of Chinese threats of retaliation. U.S. lawmakers railed against the possibility of allowing the detainees into the United States, claiming that they were dangerous terrorists despite the assessments of a Republican and a Democratic president, military officers and an independent judiciary.

Enter Bermuda and Palau. On June 11, the Justice Department announced that Bermuda would accept four of the Uighurs. The administration has also been negotiating with Palau, an island nation of some 20,000 people located east of the Philippines. The president of Palau said in a statement that his country is willing to take some of the men.

The Uighurs who are headed to Bermuda and Palau will finally get a chance to start their lives again -- albeit in foreign surroundings and without the comfort of family or an extended community that speaks their language and shares their culture. But it is disappointing that the United States has had to beseech its allies to correct an injustice wholly of its own creation. It is maddening that U.S. administrations and lawmakers of both parties did not act with cooler heads and good faith to welcome at least some of these men into this country -- especially when well-established and reputable Uighur organizations and communities offered to provide food and shelter and help to get the men established.

If U.S. lawmakers balk at accepting the Uighurs -- who never viewed the United States as an enemy -- will they consider offering safe harbor to others who have been cleared for release and who will not be accepted elsewhere? Yesterday, the European Union said it would help the United States "turn a page" on Guantanamo; several E.U. members are considering admitting detainees who have been cleared for release. While encouraging, how can the United States continue to ask something of allies that it is unwilling or unable to do itself?


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