The long and unhappy odyssey of the Guantanamo Uighurs, from China’s Xinjiang province to Cuba via Afghanistan, is apparently about to end in a remote archipelago some call a Pacific island paradise.
The government of Palau, a nation of 20,000 people about two and a half times the size of the US capital, Washington DC, has announced it will accept up to 17 ethnic Uighur detainees following a request from the US.
Palau is better known for its coral reefs and lakes full of gently pulsating jellyfish than as a power player in international politics.
But Johnson Toribiong, the country’s president, said he was “honoured and proud” to help the US out, and hoped the Uighurs will be able to restart their lives there.
The US has also pledged $200m in long-term development aid for Palau – but the US state department denies the money is a payoff.
In Washington, a Uighur community leader reacted happily.
“As long as the Uighurs don’t get sent back to China I am delighted”
Rabiya Kadeer, Uighur community leader
“As long as the Uighurs don’t get sent back to China I am delighted,” said Rabiya Kadeer.
“It’s good news. I am so glad this beautiful island decided to accept them.”
But Uighur expatriate community leader Omar Knat is disappointed the detainees will be sent to so remote a spot.
“There are no Uighurs on the island,” Knat said.
“There is no one to help them. They will have language difficulties, so we don’t know how they will manage their daily life.”
The Uighurs are members of a mostly Turkic-speaking and Muslim ethnic minority from China’s far western region, and many say they have long been repressed by the Chinese government.
China says Uighur nationalists are leading a separatist movement and are responsible for a series of “terrorist” attacks.
The men were seized in Pakistan in the months after the invasion of Afghanistan and handed over to the US military.
US authorities were at that time offering cash bounties for any foreign nationals captured in the region, assuming they had links to al-Qaeda.
Once they had been taken to Guantanamo, the Uighurs were determined not to be a threat to US security, while a military tribunal declared they were not to be considered enemy combatants.
But the US would not send them back to China, for fear the Chinese would execute them as separatists.
So the Uighurs languished, year after year, in a bizarre legal limbo – a miscarriage of justice even by the loose standards of the so-called war on terror.
In 2006, five Uighurs were accepted by Albania. Nuri Turkel, their former lawyer, reports that they have since adjusted well to live in the Balkan nation, with some getting college degrees and another even attracting a series of Albanian girlfriends.
For the remainder, last October a US federal judge ordered them to be released and resettled in the Washington DC region, but a higher court reversed the decision.
The Obama administration wants to shut Guantanamo down, and send detainees who do not face trial to other countries.
So far most US allies have balked at taking large numbers.
But now Palau’s move may help the administration convince other countries.
By Rob Reynolds