As I have explained in two recent articles, a global scramble by the Obama administration to find new homes for 17 Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province) who were, or are held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, has had mixed results. The men won their habeas corpus petitions in a US court in October 2008, but five are still held in Guantánamo, having refused an offer of resettlement from Palau and another unidentified country. These men have just lost a court case in the US, in which they sought release into the United States, and are now back in legal limbo.
In contrast, six men freed in Palau on October 31 last year are well, and happy to be free, but are also hoping that an appeal to the Australian government by Palau’s President will secure them a permanent home in Australia, where there will be more opportunities for them — and where there is also a large Uighur community.
Today, however, the four Uighurs who were freed in Bermuda last June marked the first anniversary of their release from Guantánamo in a more upbeat manner, sending a message of thanks to the Bermudian people and speaking about how they are enjoying their new lives. This was reported in the Bermuda Sun, and I’m pleased to be able to pass on the good news.
In a sign that any worries about the men have dissipated in the last year — worries that, it should be noted, were largely fanned by political opponents of Premier Ewart Brown, who arranged for their release — the Bermuda Sun described them explicitly as “innocent men wrongly imprisoned for seven years,” and explained that they are “still relishing their freedom 12 months after being let go.”
“It has been a wonderful year,” Khalil Mamut told senior reporter James Whittaker, who described him as “the best English speaker of the four and the group’s unofficial spokesman.” Mamut added, “A year ago we were in Guantánamo Bay but this year, praise be to God, we are here. We have a lot of friends — some Muslims, some Christians — and they treat us as if we are Bermudian.”
Salahidin Abdulahad added, “In our country Muslims cannot practice their religion, cannot pray together otherwise the Government oppresses them. Here we can meet with other Muslims and practice our religion in peace.”
Describing how, “with their long shorts and wrap-around shades, they do not stand out from the crowd,” Whittaker proceeded to explain how “the simple pleasures of being free” were still astonishing to the men, but also pointed out how descriptions of their life, which includes “swimming in the Atlantic, riding to work on scooters and their jobs on a majestic ocean-side golf course,” will “sound familiar to locals and expatriates alike.”
“We work hard, we pray, we rest,” Khalil Mamut told him. “We play a friendly soccer game on Sundays at Port Royal and after we like to swim in the ocean. Sometimes we have friends over for a barbecue.”
Even so, adjusting to their new life has not always been easy. As Whittaker explained, “They are still struggling to learn the language and adjust to a culture so markedly different from their own.” Salahidin Abdulahad told him, “We are still unfamiliar with the culture of Bermuda. We still need help and support. We are adapting but it is difficult. We grew up in a big country, we moved around a lot — now we move only from Dockyard to St. George’s.”
However, as Whittaker also explained, the men “hope to be able to travel beyond these shores soon” and are “awaiting news on whether they will be granted travel documents.” One of the four, Abdullah Abdulqadir, has a sister in Montreal, and hopes to be able to visit the nieces and nephews he has never met, but who, in the last year, he has been speaking to several times a week via Skype. “At first I was like a stranger,” he told Whittaker, but “now they call me uncle. If I am talking to their parents they come and they want to talk to their uncle.”
In the long-term, the men “hope to stay in Bermuda and start families of their own,” as James Whittaker put it. Khalil Mamut explained, “None of us have girlfriends, but in the future, who knows? We are all older than 30 and to have a family is very important to us.” For now, however, they are, as Whittaker described it, “just grateful to be free and in Bermuda.” Khalil Mamut told him, “We are so happy that Bermuda gave a helping hand to us and we ask God to give a peaceful life.”
A letter to the people of Bermuda
As well as publishing this anniversary article, the Bermuda Sun also published the following “poignant letter to Bermuda’s residents and Government thanking them for welcoming them to the island last year,” which was written by Khalil Mamut.
In the name of Allah, on behalf of my brothers and I, we would like to thank Premier Dr. Ewart Brown, the Bermuda Government and the people of Bermuda. You opened your homes and hearts to us and we are humbled by your hospitality.
We grew up in a different land and culture but you embraced us with your humanity and kindness and made us feel at home. We are thankful for the opportunity you gave us for a new beginning.
We are looking forward to your continual support in order for us to adapt and integrate more to your culture.
We are very blessed to be embraced by people in the community — Muslims, Christians and others.
Peace be with you all.
The political fallout – and a question of British passports
In a final article, James Whittaker also examined the political fallout from Premier Brown’s “secret deal with the US” to bring the Uighurs to Bermuda, which, as he explained, “sparked a political firestorm,” with critics arguing that Bermuda’s reputation “would forever be tarnished by an association with terrorism” and that “relations with the UK [Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory] would be seriously damaged,” while Brown’s supporters regarded it as “a bold, humanitarian gesture that would strengthen relations with the US.”
After noting that there appears to have been no noticeable effect on Bermuda’s relations with the US, despite supportive words from President Obama and Hillary Clinton, Whittaker pointed out that, in contrast, “the damage to Bermuda’s reputation seems to have been overstated by Dr. Brown’s critics,” and that, although the UK “was angry for a while,” a royal visit and a change of government “has put the incident largely in the past.”
On the domestic front, Whittaker pointed out that “PLP insiders [in Brown’s party, the Progressive Labour Party] say his failure to consult his colleagues over the Uighurs critically weakened support from key parliamentary figures,” but he survived a vote of no confidence last year, and, as Senator Walton Brown, one of his supporters, explained, “We have secured significant goodwill with the US and no adverse action whatsoever from the UK,” and the “real issue” is that “four individuals who were never charged with any crime are now free.”
Perhaps the only outstanding questions concern the men’s official status. While awaiting travel documents, as mentioned above, they are also aware that negotiations are underway in an attempt to convince the British government to give them passports, although in April, as Whittaker explained, the Governor, Sir Richard Gozney, suggested that this was “unlikely to happen soon.”
However, although Sen. Brown said that the delay “was a result of ill-feeling from the UK” regarding the way the decision to accept the Uighurs was taken, he insisted that “time is a great healer” and told Whittaker that he was “confident the UK will ultimately do the right thing and grant the men the chance to travel” and even “to reside in Britain if they chose to do so.”
“They are settled in Bermuda, they are hard working individuals,” Sen. Brown said of the Uighurs. “I’m sure they miss their families like anyone would, but their living conditions are significantly better today than they were 18 months ago. By any moral standards we have done the right thing. All that remains is for the UK to grant them travel documents and allow them to be truly free.”
The Uighurs in Britain? Now that really would be something — although I suspect that they may prefer life in Bermuda!
To conclude on a more serious note, however, the way in which the Uighurs have been accepted in Bermuda shows what would have happened in America, if President Obama had found the courage to follow through, last spring, on a plan formulated by Greg Craig, the White House Counsel, to bring a number of the Uighurs to live in the United States.
The fact that Obama quashed Craig’s plan in the face of Republican opposition still counts as his single biggest failure with regard to Guantánamo. As can be seen from the escalation of fearmongering about Guantánamo in Republican circles — and in large parts of his own party — it has been disastrous in terms of demonstrating to the American people that Guantánamo was not full of terrorists, and that innocent men were held, as well as making it more difficult for the State Department — and Obama’s special envoy Daniel Fried — to find new homes for other men who, like the Uighurs, cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will face torture on their return.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Real Uyghur Slams Newt Gingrich’s Racist Stupidity (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Who Are The Four Guantánamo Uighurs Sent To Bermuda? (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Uighurs In Bermuda: Interviews And New Photos (June 2009), Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now! (June 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Is The World Ignoring A Massacre of Uighurs In China? (July 2009), Chair Of The American Conservative Union Supports The Guantánamo Uighurs (July 2009), Three Uighurs Talk About Chinese Interrogation At Guantánamo (July 2009), House Threatens Obama Over Chinese Interrogation Of Uighurs In Guantánamo (July 2009), A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantánamo Uighurs’ Interpreter (August 2009), A Plea To Barack Obama From The Guantánamo Uighurs (August 2009), Court Allows Return Of Guantánamo Prisoners To Torture (September 2009), Finding New Homes For 44 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners (October 2009), Justice At Last? Guantánamo Uighurs Ask Supreme Court For Release Into US (October 2009), Senate Finally Allows Guantánamo Trials In US, But Not Homes For Innocent Men (October 2009), Six Uighurs Go To Palau; Seven Remain In Guantánamo (October 2009), Who Are The Six Uighurs Released From Guantánamo To Palau? (November 2009), Guantánamo Uighurs In Palau: First Interview And Photo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (December 2009), Swiss Take Two Guantánamo Uighurs, Save Obama from Having to Do the Right Thing (February 2010), Guantánamo Uighurs Back in Legal Limbo (March 2010), More Dark Truths from Guantánamo, as Five Innocent Men Released (April 2010), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.
we also thank for Bermuda government . uyghurs from Albania
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