View Full Version : After 7 years at Gitmo, resettled Uyghurs grateful for freedom

13-06-09, 18:03
HAMILTON, Bermuda (CNN) -- Two of four Uyghurs relocated to Bermuda after seven years of detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, denied Friday that they had ever been terrorists, and expressed gratitude toward President Obama for working to free them.
Salahidin Abdalahut and Kheleel Mamut were two of four Uyghurs released from Gitmo. Thirteen remain there.

Salahidin Abdalahut and Kheleel Mamut were two of four Uyghurs released from Gitmo. Thirteen remain there.

Asked what he would say to someone who accused him of being a terrorist, one of the men, Kheleel Mamut, told CNN's Don Lemon, "I am no terrorist; I have not been terrorist. I will never be terrorist. I am a peaceful person."

Speaking through an interpreter who is herself a Uyghur who said she was sympathetic toward the men, the other man -- Salahidin Abdalahut -- described the past seven years as "difficult times for me ... I feel bad that it took so long for me to be free."

The two Chinese Muslims were among four relocated from Guantanamo to Bermuda; another 13 remain in detention on the island.

He said he had traveled to Afghanistan not to attend any terrorist training camps, but because -- as a Uyghur -- he had been oppressed by the Chinese government. "We had to leave the country to look for a better life, a peaceful life, and Afghanistan is a neighboring country to our country and it's easy to go," he said. "It is difficult to obtain a visa to go to any other places, so it was really easy for us to just travel to Afghanistan."

Asked what he hoped to do next, he said, "I want to forget about the past and move on to a peaceful life in the future."

In addition to the four relocated from Guantanamo to Bermuda, another 13 Uyghurs remain in detention on the island.

The four were flown by private plane Wednesday night from Cuba to Bermuda, and were accompanied by U.S. and Bermudian representatives as well as their attorneys, according to Susan Baker Manning, part of the men's legal team.

The men, who are staying in an apartment, are free to roam about the island.

Mamut accused the Bush administration of having held them without cause, and lauded Obama for having "tried really hard to bring justice and he has been trying very hard to find other countries to resettle us and finally he freed us."
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He appealed to Obama to carry out his promise to shut Guantanamo Bay within a year. "I would like President Obama to honor that word and to free my 13 brothers who were left behind and all of the rest of the people who deserve to be free," Mamut said.

Asked how he had been treated in Guantanamo Bay, Mamut said, "It is a jail, so there will be difficulties in the jail that we have faced and now, since I am a free man today, I would like to forget about all that. I really don't want to think about those days."

He cited a proverb from his homeland that means, "What is done cannot be undone."

Asked if he had anything to say to anyone watching, he said, "Thank you very much for those people who helped me to gain freedom."

He said he had spoken earlier in the day with his family. "They told me, "My boy, my son, congratulations on your freedom.' "

The move has had international repercussions, including causing a rift between the United States and Britain.

A British official familiar with the agreement but not authorized to speak publicly on the matter told CNN the United States had informed London of the agreement "shortly before the deal was concluded."

A U.S. official, speaking on background, said the British feel blindsided.

Bermuda is a British "overseas territory."

The four were twice cleared for release -- once by the Bush administration and again this year, according to a Justice Department statement.

The issue of where they go is controversial because of China's opposition to the Uyghurs being sent to any country but China.

Uyghurs are a Muslim minority from the Xinjiang province of far west China. The 17 Uyghurs had left China and made their way to Afghanistan, where they settled in a camp with other Uyghurs opposed to the Chinese government, the Justice Department said in its statement.

They left Afghanistan after U.S. bombings began in the area in October 2001, and were apprehended in Pakistan, the statement said.

"According to available information, these individuals did not travel to Afghanistan with the intent to take any hostile action against the United States," the statement said.

However, China alleges that the men are part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement -- a group the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization -- that operates in the Xinjiang region. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang.

China on Thursday urged the United States to hand over all 17 of the Uyghurs instead of sending them elsewhere.

The United States will not send Uyghur detainees cleared for release back to China out of concern that they would be tortured by Chinese authorities. China has said no returned Uyghurs would be tortured.

A senior U.S. administration official told CNN that the State Department is working on a final agreement with Palau to settle the 13 remaining Uyghur detainees.


13-06-09, 18:04


13-06-09, 18:27
Bermudan, U.S. Governments Take Hits for Moving Uighurs Out of Guantanamo
The Obama administration is defending its decision to send four of 17 Chinese Muslims being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Bermuda and deliver the rest to the Pacific islands nation of Palau.


Friday, June 12, 2009

The Obama administration is defending its decision to send four of 17 Chinese Muslims being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Bermuda and deliver the rest to the Pacific islands nation of Palau.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday that the decision to move the ethnic Uighurs was not hasty and had been ordered by a court. He noted that five detainees had been transferred to Albania in 2005 and 2006 and there has been "no record of -- of acting violent since that transfer."

Gibbs said the Bush administration and a federal court ruled that the remaining 17 Uighurs left in Guantanamo had been declared as not enemy combatants and had to be moved out of prison.

"They've been waiting for a location for resettlement. I don't think moving them was hasty. And I don't think the decisions that are being made are hasty," Gibbs said.

But the transfer of the Uighurs has been criticized not only by Republican members of Congress but by the governments of the United Kingdom, which owns the territory of Bermuda, and China, which wants the Uighurs returned.

On Friday, some members of the Bermudan government who said they'd not been informed of the transfer, questioned the wisdom of moving the inmates to the island located 640 miles off North Carolina, saying it could hurt tourism, Bermuda's chief industry.

"When an American is watching an ad (for Bermuda) it hits my mind as an American, they saw the level of intense media attention, I say to myself, 'Hmm, that's the country that accepted Guantanamo Bay detainees' ... This is a fact, mark my words, tourism will be affected by this," said Donte Hunt, a deputy party chairman for the United Bermuda Party, the government's opposition party.

But the Bermudan government defended its decision to take the Uighurs, who the U.S. feared would face torture if sent to China. Minister of Education, Elvin James, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Ewart Brown, lamented the attention that's been paid to the nation, but said the "constant criticism" is unfair.

"If we have people here who are homeless, does it not mean we can take care of four more? ... That's the love we need to show here today," James said during a boisterous parliamentary session that mimics the British system.

"We have people here, taken against their will, proven to be innocent, and now they want a chance to survive and earn a decent living," James said, earning loud laughter from opponents.

James also said that the decision not to consult the British government before accepting the Uighurs will be dealt with at another time.

"We'll take care of protocol later ... It's too late to follow protocol," he said.

Hunt said that if terror suspects had moved into his neighborhood, he'd want to have been advised prior to their arrival. He also complained that officials have defended their decision by saying the four Uighurs were "vetted."

"What in the world does that mean? Vetted? That's a loaded word," Hunt said. "Does vetting mean that these gentlemen have gone through an extensive psychological review? Was there time spent with a psychologist, someone with the means to understand their background, and how they will react in civilized environments?"

Hunt added that while the Uighurs were declared non-combatants to the U.S. government, "they were combatants by their own admission to the Chinese government. At least one of them said they received training to fight against the Chinese government ... By their own admission.

"Do we understand the Chinese thought and possible response?" he asked.

Back in the U.S., Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, also questioned the Obama administration's decision not to let Congress know ahead of time that it was going to release some detainees.

"The Obama administration not only failed to discuss beforehand its release of trained terrorists from Guantanamo Bay with Congress, it also apparently failed to discuss it with our nation's closest ally, the United Kingdom. Understandably, this failure has caused great diplomatic and national security outrage in Britain, which is responsible for the security and foreign policy of Bermuda," Hoekstra said in a statement.

"The administration's actions have also caused increased tension between Britain and China, which has long-demanded the return of the Uighurs while pressuring other nations not to accept them," he added.

Hoekstra said he wants to know how much money is being paid to nations accepting Guantanamo inmates and the plans it is implementing to keep trained terrorists from returning to the battleground or otherwise making their way toward attacking the U.S. military.

"The American people have made clear their feelings about bringing terrorist detainees to the United States, their concerns about the ability of these people to travel and the administration's plans to ensure the proper monitoring of the terrorists should also be addressed. The administration clearly owes the nation some answers on its Guantanamo efforts," Hoekstra said.

While not ruling in or out whether detainees would end up in the United States, Gibbs said progress has been made this week in the administration's goal of closing the detention center in Cuba by early next year, a move that has broad support in Europe and elsewhere.

He added that the administration is "not going to make any decisions about transfer or release that threaten the security of this country, and that these cases are being evaluated as they come, on a case-by-case basis."

FOX News' Mike Levine contributed to this report from Bermuda.


14-06-09, 00:15
From hell to paradise for ex-Gitmo detainees
Salahidin Abdulahat, 32, left, and Khelil Mamut, 31, fish in Bermuda for the first time since their release from the Guantanamo prison. (June 13, 2009)

Four ethnic Uighurs adjusting to Bermuda, and life on outside
Jun 13, 2009 11:34 PM
Michelle Shephard

HAMILTON, Bermuda – After almost eight years of captivity, each step of Khelil Mamut's freedom is a little overwhelming.

The ocean, which he could hear only on windy days when the waves crashed beyond Guantanamo's razor wire rimmed fence, is now something he can wade into.

People call him by his name, not 278, his internee serial number.

Then there was the horse he saw while walking one of the island trails on Thursday, the day he and three other Chinese citizens of the Muslim Uighur minority arrived in Bermuda. The animal made him stop suddenly, just to stare.

"How can I express it," he said yesterday, describing the new tropical home where he now lives with the three other former Guantanamo detainees. "It is so great, so beautiful."

"This may be a small island," added Abdullah Abdulqadir. "But it has a big heart."

The men spent yesterday with the Toronto Star, as they adjusted to life on the outside and reflected on a week that one local paper headlined: "From prison to paradise."

Despite the backlash to their move, which has all Bermudians talking, they seemed insulated in their oceanside pink cottage, enjoying a fish lunch, a sunset swim and fielding the occasional media call.

They broke their composure only when a local imam visited them, embracing each fiercely.

The U.S. government is footing the bill for their food and accommodation until they can find work, which likely won't be a problem since local companies have reportedly already made six offers.

Inside their three-bedroom apartment, where the carpet, curtain and walls match the pastel exterior, the men have managed to form a makeshift family.

American translator Rushan Abbas, who alternated yesterday between typing emails to their U.S. lawyers and kneading dough for a traditional Uighur dinner, joked that despite only being a few years older she considered the men her children.

Abbas worked for U.S. interrogators translating with Uighur detainees when she first started at Guantanamo in 2002.

Then she "switched sides," she said, and started working for defence attorneys. She came here for a few days to make the transition smoother since Abdulqadir and Mamut know only limited English, and the other two men, Salahidin Abdulahat and Ablikim Turahun, don't understand at all.

The men also have the assistance of a retired Bermudian army major, Glenn Brangman, who now works with the government. With his booming voice and hibiscus-patterned surf shorts, Brangman has become their energetic guide.

Two weeks ago the scene for these men in Camp Iguana – the U.S. military's name for the prison where they were detained in Guantanamo – couldn't have been more different. On June 1, Abdulqadir approached a small group of journalists during a rare unscripted moment in a prison where the message is tightly controlled.

"Who's in charge?" Abdulqadir asked, as reporters, including one from the Star, stood mute on the other side of the fence due to rules that forbid communication between journalists and prisoners.

Abdulqadir and another detainee then quickly displayed a sketch pad where they'd written their message in crayon, managing to pull off the detention centre's first public protest.

"We need to freedom (sic)," said one page.

Ten days later, a secret pre-dawn private flight whisked them away from Guantanamo to this tourist mecca.

There's no doubt the four men stand out in this self-governing British territory that's only 54 square kilometres – less than half the size of Guantanamo's U.S. naval base.

There's no Uighur population here and when locals are asked if there's an Asian community, most point to a Japanese resident who opened a restaurant.

Their arrival has consumed the local media and parliament. Opposition members tabled a no-confidence motion on Friday to oust Bermuda's Premier Ewart Brown, arguing that his covert deal with U.S. President Barack Obama was indicative of his "autocratic" leadership.

"We don't know who these men are," opposition minister Shawn Crockwell said in an interview with the Star.

"All of a sudden there's an association between Bermuda and terrorism. Whether or not these men are or not, there's that association."

The men yesterday said they hoped they could shake the terrorist label.

"There's absolutely no hard feelings toward the U.S.," said Abdulqadir.

"There are some people accusing us, labelling us as dangerous people, but that's not true at all."

For years, the debate over the Uighur detainees, who range in age from 30 to 38, was whether they were Guantanamo victims or men who had formed links with Al Qaeda to support their opposition to China's rule.

The men said they fled China in the summer of 2001 for neighbouring Afghanistan – the two countries share a tiny stretch of border – because they could not get passports enabling them to go elsewhere.

After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the men were caught by Pakistani services and sold to the United States for a bounty.

The Pentagon accused them of training at "Al Qaeda-linked" camps and belonging to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which opposes China's oppression of Uighurs.

In September 2002, after the men had been in custody for almost a year, the ETIM was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

The listing itself was criticized by some who accused the United States of succumbing to China's pressure at a time when Beijing's support was sought for the upcoming war in Iraq.

During years of litigation, the D.C. courts slammed the inadequacy of the government's evidence, eventually pushing the Bush administration to concede that the Uighurs were no longer designated "enemy combatants."

This administrative reclassification, which cleared the men for release, prompted one District Court judge to quip: "The government's use of the Kafkaesque term `no longer enemy combatants' deliberately begs the question of whether these petitioners ever were enemy combatants."

Yesterday, the men said the toughest time in their captivity was when Chinese interrogators were allowed on the base in 2002.

They also talked of their year inside Camp 6, where they were kept in solitary confinement and only meals and calls of other prisoners broke the monotony of the day.

After a D.C. judge ordered them released last October, they were transferred to Camp Iguana, a separate prison of enclosed wooden huts, perched high on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean.

But when the United States denied them refuge and no other country would accept them, they were trapped in a legal limbo until last week.

Another 13 Uighur detainees, heading for the tiny Pacific island of Palau, still remain in Guantanamo, as does Canadian Omar Khadr.

Some residents here were angry that Bermuda accepted men other Western nations refused to take, while others say the men will integrate well.

"I feel people need somewhere to go. These guys haven't done anything wrong and have been locked up," said Carol Turini, a 70-year-old cab driver who retired from a job in the immigration department eight years ago.

"Why not?"

Their American lawyer, Sabin Willet, said one of the most poignant moments for him came when they were shopping for new clothes as a local talk radio show was airing irate callers saying Bermuda was harbouring terrorists.

Hearing the radio, and then recognizing the men, the storeowner looked at them and said, "Well, I welcome you here."


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14-06-09, 00:37