Uyghurs Land in Switzerland

After 8-1/2 years in custody at Guantanamo Bay, two men are freed.
2010-03-23
Email story
Comment on this story
Share story
Print story
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Email
Swiss-Take-Uyghurs-305.jpg
Swiss Federal Councillor and Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (R) at a news conference in Bern, Feb. 3, 2010.
AFP

WASHINGTON—Two ethnic Uyghur detainees, both Chinese nationals, have arrived in Switzerland after 8-1/2 years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, a knowledgeable source said Tuesday.

Switzerland agreed to resettle Bahtiyar Mahnut and Arkin Mahmud despite pressure from the Chinese government amidst ongoing negotiations over a free trade agreement.

The two brothers were captured in Afghanistan in October 2001 by U.S. troops.

Rushan Abbas, who has worked as a translator for the Uyghur detainees and spoke by phone with them once they landed, said the brothers had left Guantanamo Bay at 7 a.m. Monday and arrived in Zurich later in the day.

Swiss officials met them at the airport and gave them travel documents that will allow them to travel freely inside the European Union, she said.

Officials drove them to their new home in Jura, gave them money, "and now they are shopping for clothes and food," Abbas said.

"They went out for clothes shopping today and are very happy in their new apartment," she said, adding that the two men expressed thanks to their attorney, Elizabeth Gilson, and to the Swiss government.

The Swiss lower house National Security Commission voted Jan. 12—with 15 votes to 10—against taking in the two men, natives of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China.

According to a statement by the Swiss government, the two Uyghurs were considered  for resettlement because they were granted that right by the U.S. government in 2005 after no evidence could be found connecting them to terrorist groups.

The statement added that the Federal Council had agreed on Dec. 16 to allow an Uzbek national from the camp to resettle in the Swiss Canton of Geneva.

The Canton of Jura then voted on Jan. 27 to admit the two Uyghurs, pending approval by the Federal Council. Jura is one of 26 Swiss cantons, with a population of about 70,000.

Chinese pressure

China opposed any countries accepting the two men, claiming they are members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which China, the United Nations, and the United States regard as a terrorist organization.

The U.S. government has refused to return Uyghurs held at Guantanamo to China, saying they would face persecution there. But Washington has also been reluctant to resettle the Uyghurs in the United States.

The Uyghur men were among a larger group of 22 Uyghurs captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan and sold for bounty to U.S. forces following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Six were transferred to Palau in October, four to Bermuda in June, and five to Albania in 2006. One man in the last group has since resettled in Sweden.

Palau initially invited 12 of 13 remaining Uyghurs at Guantanamo to resettle on the tiny Pacific island, but it did not offer to take in Arkin Mahmud, 45. His brother Bahtiyar Mahnut opted to stay at Guantanamo to take care of his older brother, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Five others turned down Palau's offer for other reasons.

All say they were living as refugees in Afghanistan, having faced religious persecution in China.

Terror allegations

The United States maintained that the men had attended terror-training camps, and they were flown to Guantanamo Bay in June 2002. They were eventually cleared of terrorist links but remained in custody while Washington tried to find a country willing to take them in.

Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwestern China.

Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in rioting in July that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.

Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.

Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Original reporting Medina and Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service. Service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.