WASHINGTON—Two Uyghur detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be resettled within a month after the government of Switzerland agreed to accept them on humanitarian grounds, a lawyer for the men said Wednesday.
Elizabeth Gilson, a lawyer based in Connecticut, said she hadn’t yet been able to inform the two men, who are still being held at the Guantanamo prison, but hoped to speak with them today.
“Right now we have to work out an agreement—it’s called a memorandum of understanding—between the Swiss and the Americans, but they’re expecting, perhaps, that the men should be on Swiss soil in a month,” Gilson said.
“I think they will not believe it’s true until their feet are on the ground in Switzerland … They have been told things many times,” she said. “I hope [they will be transferred] within 30 days.”
Switzerland on Wednesday agreed to resettle Uyghur detainees Bahtiyar Mahnut and Arkin Mahmud from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, 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.
Pressure from China
“We are now negotiating a free trade agreement with China. It’s a difficult moment and therefore our trade minister was against taking them because China openly said that they would not be happy, to put it mildly,” said an official at the Swiss Embassy in Washington.
“We are happy to contribute to hopefully soon close down Guantanamo. It’s clear that the Chinese tried to have an impact on this decision and that they are probably not that happy,” he added.
Switzerland’s announcement also came after a parliamentary panel recommended denying the two entry into the country due to security concerns following the December bombing attempt of a U.S. airliner.
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.
The Reuters news agency quoted Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf as saying that Switzerland is unlikely to accept additional detainees from Guantanamo.
The minister said the Swiss action was not politically motivated and that Switzerland hopes to maintain good relations with both the United States and China.
"In the end, the final factor was not economic and diplomatic relations. We decided to base our decision on Switzerland's humanitarian tradition," she told Reuters.
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.
A Chinese Embassy official in Washington reiterated the central government’s stance that the Uyghurs should be returned to China to face charges.
“The Chinese government’s position on this issue is consistent and clear: Those detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay are terrorist suspects who were captured by counter-terror warfare in Afghanistan,” the official said.
“The Uyghur suspects are Chinese nationals. They should be returned to China to be dealt with according to Chinese law. We are opposed to the U.S. sending those Uyghurs to any third countries.”
But Dean Boyd, spokesman for the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, commended the Swiss decision.
“We are grateful to the Swiss government and the Cantons of Jura and Geneva for assisting in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The help of our close partners, such as Switzerland, is extremely important to our continuing work to close the facility,” he said.
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, 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 and by Joshua Lipes. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.