From Guantánamo To The South Pacific: Is This A Joke?


PalauLet’s face it, when it comes to Guantánamo, there’s little to laugh about, unless you’re an Islamophobic sadist — in which case, there’s still nothing for the rest of us to laugh about.

The Associated Press reports that, in a desperate effort to rid itself of the toxic human debris of Guantánamo, the Obama administration is eyeing up the tiny Republic of Palau, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles (800 km) east of the Philippines, to dispose of some, or all of the 17 Uighurs in Guantánamo.

The Uighurs are Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, who were swept up in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and sold to US forces by Pakistani villagers after fleeing from a run-down hamlet in which they had sought solace from their Chinese oppressors, or, in many cases, because they had found themselves unable to make their way to Turkey or Europe, to look for work, as they had originally intended.

Despite this, their proposed resettlement in the United States has caused panic attacks amongst politicians whose understanding of the prison’s inhabitants has clearly gone no further than to curl up at Dick Cheney’s knee, and say, “Gee, tell me again how the prisoners in Guantánamo are the most dangerous terrorists in the world?”

Apparently unable to understand that the majority of the prisoners in Guantánamo were bought for bounties, and were never adequately screened to determine their status, these fearful politicians continue to ignore the copious amounts of research demonstrating that all but a few dozen of the remaining 239 prisoners are either completely innocent men, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war in Afghanistan that began long before the 9/11 attacks, and had nothing to do with international terrorism.

In this, they have been ably assisted by the appeals court in Washington D.C., where, in February, a panel of judges led by Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who has, to date, defended every single Guantánamo policy decision that was subsequently reversed by the Supreme Court, overturned an earlier ruling by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina.

In October, Judge Urbina ruled, very sensibly, that the Uighurs were to be allowed to resettle in the United States, in the care of the large Uighur community in and around Washington D.C. and in a community in Tallahassee, Florida that had gone out of its way to help them.

Judge Urbina made his ruling for four very good reasons: firstly, because the government had been persuaded to drop all its charges against the Uighurs (after the most humiliating court defeat, last June); secondly, because they cannot be returned to China, where they face torture or worse: thirdly, because no other country had been found that was prepared to take on China by accepting them: and fourthly, because their continued detention in Guantánamo was, simply, unconstitutional.

Having somehow skipped the class that would have informed them that rocking boats is sometimes required in politics, senior officials in the Obama administration refused to order the men’s release into the United States in those first few halcyon days in office, when anything seemed possible, and have now vacillated to such an extent — most recently, apparently, when Rush Limbaugh started barking — that releasing them into the US is simply too much to contemplate, even though it clearly remains the right thing to do.

To make matters worse, while mumbling occasionally about transferring some of the Uighurs to the mainland, the administration has, at the same time, been instructing the Justice Department to endorse the views of Judge Randolph in a petition intended to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing the Uighurs’ surreal and intolerable limbo.

Confronted with the problem of rehousing five other Uighurs in 2006, the Bush administration secured, for an undisclosed sum, the cooperation of Albania (a Muslim nation, albeit a poor one, with no other Uighurs and little work), but that escape route was soon sealed off as the Albanians found themselves subjected to the wrath of the People’s Republic. Since then — despite hopeful murmurs from other countries, and the acceptance, in Sweden, of an asylum claim by one of the Uighurs sent to Albania, who made a sneaky escape in November 2007 and was finally accepted in February this year — no other country has yet taken the bait.

The Obama administration could probably weather this — the odd Bob Dylan-style protest notwithstanding — by plying the Uighurs with ever more comfort items in their secluded camp, away from all the other prisoners, and would, perhaps, soon be pointing out how marvelous the climate is, but senior officials are aware that the countries of Europe are unlikely to take any other prisoners from Guantánamo facing similar repatriation problems — from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Russia, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, who are also low achievers in the field of human rights — unless the US government also plays ball.

Hence the appeal of Palau, which, although it appears to be have been chosen as the result of a dart thrown at a globe by a desperate official, is actually a rather canny option. A former US trust territory, the island became independent in 1994, but retains close ties with its former masters, having signed a “Compact of Free Association” with the US, guaranteeing financial assistance in exchange for certain defense rights, More importantly, it maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, rather than with the People’s Republic of China. The fact that it has no Uighur population and that its population of 21,000 includes no Muslims is, presumably, neither here nor there.

Could this, then, be the answer to the Obama administration’s Uighur problem? Perhaps, but if so, it will demonstrate only that, when it comes to cleaning up the mess that is Guantánamo, cowardice, desperation and the least enviable form of pragmatism available are yet another example of Bush and Cheney’s despicable legacy.

UPDATE June 10: O-ho, so it really isn’t a joke. Today, the Associated Press reported that Palau President Johnson Toribiong had sent them a message stating that his government had “agreed to accommodate the United States of America’s request to temporarily resettle in Palau up to 17 ethnic Uighur detainees … subject to periodic review.” He added, following the script emailed to him by Hillary Clinton, that Palau was “honored and proud” to take the men, who have been found not to be “enemy combatants.”

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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post. Cross-posted on Common Dreams.

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), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

13 Responses

  1. From Guantánamo To The South Pacific: Is This A Joke? by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad 10 June […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I received this message on Facebook, and thought it was worth re-posting here:

    Hi Andy,

    Great article today. Well, probably you’ve heard this already, but I just heard from the Rachel Maddow show that the U.S. has offered 200 million dollars to the government of Palau for the remaining 17 Uyghurs (which comes out to nearly 12 million dollars per Uyghur).

    Not that I’m saying people in Palau don’t need that money, but I’d bet we could use that here in the U.S. on health care, education, etc. too. And we could bring the Uyghurs here for the cost of a plane ride (a shorter plane ride than the one needed to take them to Palau).



  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Amy,
    Thanks for that. I’d missed that particular nugget. Certainly, doing the right thing and bringing the Uighurs to the US would cost nothing, so that the $200 million could indeed be used more wisely, but my facetious side also wonders whether Obama couldn’t pay off his fearmongering critics instead. After all, they may like fearmongering, but they all love money even more …

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    The Talking Dog said:

    Palau will be “the new Cuba”. Madman shoots up Holocaust memorial in Washington, DC. New York State government is sold to out of state billionaire.

    Film at 11.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    My reply:

    I could do with a nice film at 11, but I bet it won’t be, and anyhow, I’ll probably be working.

    Good news from the UK today, at least, as the law Lords decided to take exception to holding men under house arrest without letting them know what they’re supposed to have done. Perhaps the tide is turning …

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I also received the following message:

    Mr. Worthington, it’s probably a minor point, but you should know that the Republic of Palau is not in the South Pacific. It is north of the equator–if being south of the equator defines islands as being in the South Pacific. Situating the islands of Micronesia in the south Pacific is common, but in doing so, those islands then share a stereotypical definition which is inconsistent with culture, language, and ethnicity of the islands north of the equator.

    I lived in Guam for many years and have visited Palau many times. Palauans are nothing like, for example, Tahitians, except, perhaps, in terms of their respective climates.

    Gene Bruce

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Hi Gene,
    Thanks for clarifying, though I actually used “South Pacific” as more of a cultural reference point i.e. the musical, to provide a contrast with Guantanamo.

  8. Pacific island set to accept Gitmo’s Chinese Muslims | Politics News says...

    […] and journalist Andy Worthington argues that the move shows signs of desperation on the part of the Obama administration: Could […]

  9. mui says...

    We in the U.S. do not have good leadership on this issue. Many republicans seem to think that perpetual imprisonment and GITMO help the “War on Terra”. Many Dems seem to want to treat the stateless, but not-guilty prisoners as toxic assets to be dumped in the damaged goods bin. Here’s one FDL post (written by a mental health professional) responding to Sheldon Whitehouse’s suggestions that: ” detainees could be held because they are a danger to self and others under the same basic philosophy of the mental health commitment.”
    Palau seems to be a continuation of this damaged goods bin theme. No offense to the people of Palau.

    I am reading The Guantanamo files and I have never been more ashamed of my own country. Of course, I didn’t live through slavery, jim crow and the civil rights era, but I feel if innocent prisoners don’t receive justice we Americans will end up in hell with all the Nazis. And I am pretty secular.

  10. nazcalito says...

    Yep, Palau is in the North Pacific, Gene, but we can’t expect these non-islanders to know where little Pacific islands are. But they might as well have sent them to Honolulu, because (as far as I can remember) people from Micronesia don’t need visas to enter the U.S.

  11. Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad 14 June […]

  12. RINF Alternative News Media: Daily Breaking News says...

    […] are still in Guantánamo, although according to information leaked last week, the US government is hoping to resettle them on the Pacific island of Palau, and is, it must be noted, anxious to do this before June 25, when […]

  13. “Los presos liberados de Guantánamo deberían poder pedir una compensación” – P+DH [periodismo + derechos humanos] says...

    […] el tema de los presos inocentes de Guantánamo que van a ser liberados en terceros países. El caso de los uigures chinos es quizá el más famoso y el más representativo. Hace mucho tiempo que el ejército […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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