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Switzerland to resettle Uighur brothers from Guantanamo

By Del Quentin Wilber and Peter Finn
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A10

Two brothers detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are slated to be released in Switzerland, ending an unusual situation in which one of the men refused a chance at freedom to remain imprisoned with his troubled sibling.

The Swiss government announced Wednesday that it has approved the resettlement of the two Uighurs, Muslims from Western China, who have been held at the facility since 2002.

In accepting the brothers, the Swiss government resisted diplomatic pressure from China and opposition within the Swiss parliament.

Once the transfer is complete, five Uighurs will remain in U.S. custody. At one point, the Guantanamo Bay prison held 22 Uighurs, who are not enemies of the United States but are considered terrorists by Beijing.

Some in Switzerland argued against accepting the brothers, saying they posed a security threat. But Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told reporters Wednesday that the government, which had access to their classified files, reached a different conclusion.

"In the end, the final factor was not economic and diplomatic relations," she said. "We decided to base our decision on Switzerland's humanitarian tradition."

Switzerland has now taken three detainees, and Widmer-Schlumpf said no more would be resettled in her country.

The plight of the Uighurs has highlighted the diplomatic difficulties in trying to find places to send prisoners not destined for terrorism trials or indefinite confinement under the laws of war.

U.S. authorities have been trying for years to send the Uighur detainees to foreign countries but have run into fierce opposition from China. Beijing has used its economic and political heft to block such transfers and has demanded that the Uighurs be returned to China. U.S. officials have said they cannot send the Uighurs to China, because they might be tortured.

In 2006, five Uighurs were sent to Albania. Last year, four were transferred to Bermuda and six were sent to the Pacific island nation of Palau.

Palau, which depends heavily on U.S. financial support, had invited 12 of 13 remaining Uighurs to settle there. Six declined the invitation for various reasons.

One of those who rejected Palau's offer was Bahtiyar Mahnut. His brother, Arkin Mahmud, was not extended an invitation because he suffers from mental health problems too serious to treat in the sparsely populated country, their attorney has said.

In a gut-wrenching decision, Mahnut decided to stay at Guantanamo Bay with his brother and pass up the chance at release, according to their attorney, Elizabeth Gilson.

On Wednesday, Gilson said she was "grateful that the Swiss people and politicians didn't give in to China's bullying."

Gilson said she has not been able to reach the brothers to tell them about the Swiss decision.

Although the administration has struggled with domestic opposition to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, a steady stream of detainees has been repatriated or resettled, mostly in Europe.

Since President Obama took office, his administration has transferred 48 detainees out of Guantanamo and is negotiating the release of dozens more.

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