4 Chinese Muslims Freed From Guantanamo Are Moved to Bermuda

By Devlin Barrett and Matthew Lee | June 11, 2009 | 10:04 AM EDT
Washington (AP) - Four of the Chinese Muslims who have been detained at Guantanamo Bay for years while courts and nations debated their fate were freed Thursday and resettled in Bermuda.

They were among 17 Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 who remained at the military detention center in Cuba even after the U.S. government had determined they weren't enemy combatants and should be released.

Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown told a news conference that the men will be allowed to live in Bermuda initially as refugees but they would be permitted to pursue citizenship and would have the right to work, travel and "potentially settle elsewhere."

Brown said negotiations with Washington over settling the Uighurs began last month and he had no security concerns because the men had been cleared by U.S. courts.

Abdul Nasser, one of the four detainees who landed in Bermuda early Thursday morning, issued a statement through his lawyers, saying: "Growing up under communism we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring."

It's the first time since 2006 that the U.S. has successfully resettled any of Guantanamo's population of Uighurs (WEE'-gurs). China strongly opposed their release, contending they were part of a Chinese separatist movement, and warned nations against taking them. It had been unclear where they could go free.

Thirteen other Uighurs, who are from a Chinese region that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain to be released. Arrangements are being made for them to be sent to the Pacific island nation of Palau.

Beijing said Thursday that the 17 Chinese Muslims are terrorists and should be handed back to China.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China "opposes any country taking any of these terrorist suspects." He did not say if China would take any action in response to the U.S. move.

Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China long has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang.

U.S. officials refused to return the Uighurs to China out of concerns they would be tortured or executed.

The Justice Department on Thursday issued a statement thanking the government of Bermuda for helping resettle four of the detainees.

U.S. officials did not say what restrictions, if any, would be placed on the Uighurs as they are resettled in Bermuda.

"We will consult regularly with the government of Bermuda on the status of these individuals," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss negotiations between the two nations, said the four would not be allowed to travel to the United States without prior approval from American authorities.

The departure of the four detainees for Bermuda _ a British territory _ leaves 234 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, and comes in a busy week at the military base in Cuba.

On Tuesday morning, authorities brought detainee Ahmed Ghailani to New York to face trial in civilian court for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. And the president of Palau said his nation will take some Uighurs.

The Uighurs are a unique group among the Guantanamo detainees. A federal judge ordered last year that they be released in the United States, but an appeals court overruled that decision.

Albania accepted five Uighurs from Guantanamo in 2006, but declined to take more. Many nations have said no to receiving the Uighurs, out of concerns that doing so would anger the Chinese government.

At one point, officials had considered bringing some of the Uighurs to Virginia, but the possibility provoked intense opposition in Congress, and the plan was shelved.


Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.
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