Uighur's Chance to Leave Guantanamo Means Leaving Brother

Elizabeth Gilson, a lawyer who represents two Uighur brothers who have been held at Guantanmo Bay since 2002, talks about why Bahtiyar Mahnut is willing to stay at the prison, perhaps indefinitely, because he refuses to abandon his brother Arkin. Palau has agreed to take only Bahtiyar Mahnut.
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

Bahtiyar Mahnut, a detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, learned a few weeks ago that the Pacific island nation of Palau had invited him to settle there.

It should have been cause for celebration, especially for a man who desperately wants to be free. But, to the surprise of his attorneys, Bahtiyar has turned down the offer. He wishes to remain a prisoner, they say, so he can look after his older brother, a fellow detainee.

The brothers' saga, as related by their attorneys and military records, could transpire only in the context of Guantanamo Bay and comes at a critical juncture for the Obama administration, which is struggling to meet a Jan. 22 deadline to shutter the 223-detainee prison. Their circumstances also highlight the diplomatic difficulties facing the U.S. government as it tries to find places to send prisoners not destined for terrorism trials in the United States.

The brothers are Uighurs, residents of China who are considered separatists by Beijing but are not enemies of the United States. The brothers were picked up separately in Afghanistan and Pakistan soon after the United States launched attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Since at least 2003, the U.S. government has tried to find homes for the brothers and 20 other captured Uighurs. Five went to Albania in 2006; four were sent to Bermuda in June. At one point, U.S. officials were considering the possibility of resettling Uighurs in the D.C. region, but that plan was scuttled under political pressure. Most countries have been reluctant to accept Uighurs and risk angering China.

In recent weeks, however, Palau has agreed to accept 12 of the 13 remaining Uighurs, according to the Justice Department.

The only detainee not invited by Palau was Bahtiyar's older brother, Arkin Mahmud, 45, who has developed mental health problems that are apparently too serious to be treated in the sparsely populated country, said his attorney, Elizabeth Gilson.

To make matters worse, according to Gilson and military records, Arkin is a prisoner only because he went searching for Bahtiyar after the younger brother left their homeland eight years ago.

"This is just very difficult and sad," said Abubakkir Qasim, 40, a Uighur freed from Guantanamo Bay in 2006 who considers himself a friend of both brothers.

"Bahtiyar is turning away freedom for his brother," Qasim said through an interpreter. "His brother is only there because of Bahtiyar. I feel sorry for both of them."

Five other Uighurs have declined the offer for a variety of reasons, according to one of their attorneys, Susan Baker Manning. The Justice Department says the government thinks that six to eight Uighurs will go to Palau. The earliest they could leave would be Thursday, the Justice Department says.

Officials at the Defense and State departments and the Palau Embassy in Washington either declined to comment or did not return phone messages.

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