Officials at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have moved five ethnic Uighurs into a less restrictive area of the prison while the United States tries to find a way to free the Chinese separatists in a third country.
The Uighurs are part of a group of 15 who have been held at Guantanamo Bay for three years but have been found to pose no threat to the United States or its allies. Last week they were transferred from cells to an area known as Camp Iguana, where they have use of an entertainment room, a kitchen and an outdoor recreational area, U.S. lawyers told a federal court judge at a hearing yesterday.
But they are still surrounded by a fence, have minimal contact with the outside world and are uncertain when their legal limbo will end.
Although five have been found not to be enemy combatants and all 15 have been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay, the United States has found no country to accept the Uighurs (pronounced wee-gurs), Muslims who are seeking their own homeland on territory that is now part of northwestern China. The United States will not return them to China for fear that the government would persecute or torture them. The Uighurs have fought the Chinese government and are accused of terrorist attacks there.
U.S. authorities have asked nearly two dozen nations to provide refuge for the Uighurs without success, in part because other nations do not want to anger the Chinese. In the meantime, the U.S. government and lawyers for two of the Uighurs are trying to work out ways to grant the detainees greater freedom at Guantanamo Bay.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson said yesterday that he would like more time to consider the issue. He seemed pleased that the Uighurs, as well as about five other unidentified detainees, had been moved to better living quarters while they await their release.
Lawyers for the two Uighurs -- Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdu Hakim -- who also represent seven other members of the group, argued yesterday that the U.S. government should allow the Uighurs to come to the United States as political asylum-seekers and grant them a loosely defined "parole" status. Two Washington area Uighurs have volunteered to house the men, said Omar Kanat of Vienna, vice president of the Uyghur American Association.
Sabin P. Willett argued in U.S. District Court in Washington yesterday that the Uighurs could be trapped in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely. Willett said the move to better quarters in the military prison amounted to "fluffing the pillows" instead of granting the men their freedom.
"I don't think they should be held behind any fence," Willett said.
Terry Henry, a Justice Department lawyer, said that one of the Uighur detainees was able to speak to his sister in Sweden on Friday for 90 minutes. Only one other detainee at Guantanamo Bay has been allowed to use the telephone. But Henry said the Uighurs should be held until arrangements can be made for them, and that they should not be released to the United States, even under parole status.
"We can continue to hold them in Camp Iguana, or something like it, for as long as it takes," Henry said.