Akil Simmons/AP
Bermuda's Prime Minister Ewart Brown

Four Guantanamo Detainees Touch Down in Bermuda, But What About the Rest?

June 12, 2009 07:00 PM
by Liz Colville
Amid political tension, four Chinese Muslim detainees have settled in Bermuda, sparking questions about the fate of other Guantanamo detainees.

Debate Across Borders Over Future of Detainees

The four men, Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs, have spent seven years at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay prison after being detained in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. The four were expected to join 13 other Uighurs in the Pacific island nation of Palau, the Associated Press reported. But China wants them sent home in order to be put on trial, and has called them “terrorists.”

In response to a request from President Obama, Palau has agreed to accept up to 17 Uighur detainees, according to the AP. In return, the United States is prepared to give the island “up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance,” an anonymous source told the AP. They will be “subject to periodic review,” but Palau President Johnson Toribiong said he would be “honored and proud” to give them asylum.

The Uighur detainees have been in “legal limbo” since last year, the AP added. They have been cleared for release by U.S. courts, which was good enough for Bermuda’s Prime Minister Ewart Brown to accept four of them, but not good enough for the British defense department. Bermuda is a British protectorate and is celebrating its 400th year of settlement this month.

The British Foreign Office “complained that Bermuda's leaders failed to consult ‘whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility,’” AP reported.
Brown “conceded he had a difficult conversation with the British governor, Richard Gozney,” the Guardian reported. “[Gozney] is seeking to further assess the ramifications of this move before allowing the government of Bermuda to fully implement this action,” Brown was quoted as saying. “Our colonial relationship with the United Kingdom certainly gives him licence to do so.”

Meanwhile, the United States has “objected to any Uighurs being released in the U.S., and few other nations showed any interest in accepting them. Albania took in a few in 2006,” the AP added. The BBC, however, reported that several European countries have expressed interest in providing asylum to other Guantanamo detainees.

But the Uighur problem is a snapshot of what might happen if Guantanamo is indeed closed. President Obama formally ordered the closure of the detention center in January, stating that it would be closed by Jan. 2, 2010, the BBC reported.

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Opinion & Analysis: The future of Guantanamo

Despite widespread support around the globe, the challenges posed by the closure of Guantanamo appeared so great that the Bush administration said that closing it “would involve too many legal and political risks to be acceptable, now or anytime soon,” The New York Times reported in October 2008.

Politicians and legal experts sounded off about the future of the detainees following President Obama’s victory, with some speculating that an alternative court system would be set up to try them.

“The legal process for these prisoners has been widely criticised because the US military acts as jailer, judge and jury,” the BBC's Jonathan Beale explained following Obama’s January order to close the prison. “At Mr. Obama’s request, military judges have suspended several of the trials of suspects at Guantanamo so that the legal process can be reviewed,” the BBC added.

ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz, who represents Guantanamo detainees, told the AP last fall “that creating a new alternative court system in response to the abject failure of Guantanamo would be a profound mistake.”

Meanwhile, former Guantanamo legal advisor Kyndra Miller Rotunda, writing in The Washington Times during the election season, urged for the prison to remain open. “If the military transferred detainees to the United States, some detainees might claim asylum. Even if a court ultimately rejected such claims, we would face a lengthy litigation. Even if judge were reversed on appeal, the detainee might be released in the interim. What might happen then?”

On May 15, Obama reinstated the prison’s military tribunal system but revised some of the rules, which the BBC outlined in a Q&A on Guantanamo. “While some will go through the revised military tribunals, others may be tried in regular federal courts,” according to the BBC. “It is thought about 50 or so might face trial or military tribunal—so far only 21 have actually been charged.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates “has said that between 50 and 100 detainees cannot be tried or released,” the BBC reported. Those prisoners “would be transferred to facilities on the US mainland.”

Commenting on the arrival of the four Uighur detainees, Bermuda’s Prime Minister Brown said it was “the right thing to do,” the Guardian reported.

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