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17 Chinese Muslims to be freed from Guantanamo — but they don't know yet

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The news flashed on the television in the staff mess hall midday Wednesday: 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished without charge at the prison here would be released and sent to a tiny island nation in the Pacific.

The guards knew that one of the biggest obstacles to the closure of the controversial prison camp had just been resolved. The prisoners' attorneys knew. A group of visiting journalists knew.

The only people who didn't know were the 17 Uighur men, members of a religious minority from a remote part of western China who had been captured in 2001 in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The chief petty officer over Camp Iguana, who would not give his name, said the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are "always asking a lot about their future, wanting to know when they are leaving." But, he said, neither he nor any of the guards were allowed to tell them.

"We'll talk to them, but not about that," he said. "So, we don't think they could know yet."

The Uighurs' British and American lawyers had no access to their clients Wednesday and the prisoners' once-weekly call to their families in China happened in the morning before the news broke.

"The lawyers can't contact them and don't know if they know," said Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer for one of the Uighurs. "But we do know it's way past time for this issue to get resolved."

The release of the Uighurs was delayed by the United States' fear that they would be tortured or executed as Islamic separatists if returned to China. Numerous other countries declined to give the men asylum, fearing diplomatic troubles with China, though Albania accepted five of the Uighurs in 2006.

Fierce opposition in Congress prevented the Obama administration from bringing the men to the United States, even though the Pentagon determined early on in their incarceration that they were not "enemy combatants." A federal judge had ordered them to be released in October 2008, though an appeals court later blocked the move.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong said the decision of his country, one of a handful of nations that does not recognize China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, was "a humanitarian gesture" intended to help the detainees restart their lives. His archipelago, with a population of about 20,000, will accept the detainees subject to periodic review.

"This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau," he said.

Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.

A former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994. It relies heavily on U.S. aid and is dependent on the United States for defense. Native-born Palauans are allowed to enter the United States without passports or visas.

Wednesday, a few of the Uighur prisoners could be seen sitting behind razor wire and barbed wire talking quietly in a covered breezeway. Some walked around the small compound of Camp Iguana in khaki shorts and T-shirts.

They are held separately from the majority of the other detainees and have greater liberties, including weekly calls and access to take-out food. They stay in four air-conditioned houses where guards say they pass the time reading, watching DVDs or working sudoku puzzles.

Wednesday night they ordered from Pizza Hut: vegetarian pizza with banana peppers, jalapenos and olives. But the guards said nothing when they delivered the food.

It is unclear when they will be released or when they will even be told. It might not be until next Wednesday when they get to call home.

China, which has demanded the men be extradited to their homeland, had no immediate reaction.

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. The Uighurs were believed to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan to acquire weapons and training for their dispute with the Chinese. However, one of their attorneys, Seema Saifee, denied this in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, saying the Uighurs received no training and were simply fleeing religious persecution.

President Barack Obama has ordered the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay to be closed by January at the latest.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

17 Chinese Muslims to be freed from Guantanamo — but they don't know yet 06/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 10:50pm]

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