WASHINGTON—Switzerland will probably decide as soon as Feb. 3 whether to allow two ethnic Uyghur men, held for years in U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay but cleared of any wrongdoing, to settle in the Swiss region of Jura, a lawyer for the detained men said Tuesday.
Elizabeth Gilson, a lawyer based in Connecticut, said the Swiss Federal Council “has to decide ... tomorrow” whether to honor an overwhelming vote by the Canton of Jura to accept the men for resettlement.
Jura is one of 26 Swiss cantons, with a population of about 70,000.
The two Uyghurs, Bahtiyar Mahnut and Arkin Mahmud, were captured in Afghanistan in October 2001 by U.S. troops.
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.
China opposes 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.
“China has been writing very, very severe letters, saying ‘You cannot take these Uyghurs. They are our internal problem,’” Gilson said.
“And the Swiss are trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with China, the first in all of Europe. And so the finance minister and some of the others are very, very [much] against taking any Uyghurs ... They also are saying many jobs will be lost if the Uyghurs come.”
But the Swiss “don’t like to be pushed around by China or the United States. So this is causing huge, huge interest in Switzerland, and tomorrow is the big day,” she said.
Asked about the emotional condition of her clients, who are among seven Uyghurs still held at Guantanamo after two other groups were resettled in Bermuda and Palau, Gilson said, “I think that all of them are depressed. It’s an indeterminate sentence. They don’t know when they’ll get out.”
“No one is offering them any asylum,” Gilson said.
“They can’t believe that America, the powerful United States, can’t find them a safe place to live. And frankly, it’s pretty hard for me to believe, too.”
The Uyghur men were among a larger group of 22 Uyghurs captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan and sold for bounty to U.S. forces after fleeing the mountains in the wake of U.S.-led raids, following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Six were transferred to Palau is October, four to Bermuda in June, and five resettled in 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, because he has developed mental health problems.
His brother Bahtiyar Mahnut opted to stay at Guantanamo to take care of his older brother, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Three others turned down Palau's offer for other reasons.
All say they were living as refugees in Afghanistan, having faced religious persecution in China.
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 by Mamatjan Juma for RFA's Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.