KOROR, Palau (AP) – Six Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo Bay but still wanted at home as separatists arrived Sunday on their new tropical island home of Palau after the tiny Pacific nation agreed to a U.S. request to resettle the men.
The ethnic Uighurs were met Sunday at Palau’s airport by President Johnson Toribiong and then taken to their residence to rest, a statement from the president’s office said.
Palau agreed in June to Washington’s request to temporarily resettle the men, who have been held by the U.S. since their capture in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001.
The Pentagon determined last year that the Uighurs were not “enemy combatants” but they have been in legal limbo ever since, as President Barack Obama sought countries willing to take the Uighurs as part of his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by next January. “President Toribiong’s decision to permit the temporary resettlement of the Uighurs in Palau was a humanitarian gesture based on the finest tradition of the Palauan culture, which since time immemorial has always given shelter and sustenance to people in need,” the Palau president’s statement said.
Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated region of China that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They are Turkic-speaking Muslims who say they have long been repressed by the Chinese government. They fear they would be arrested, tortured or executed if sent back to China.
China has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang and wants them returned.
Overnight, about 10 policemen stood outside the home where the men will live, on a side street in the heart of Koror, where most of Palau’s 20,000 residents live and work. Their building, which has a bank on the ground floor, has undergone construction in recent weeks to accommodate the men. It is a five-minute walk from Koror’s only mosque, one of two in the country.
Palau has a Muslim population of about 500, mostly migrant workers from Bangladesh.
Toribiong’s statement said the Uighurs would be provided medical care, housing and education, including English lessons and instruction in skills that will help them find a job.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that it would continue to consult with Palau regarding the former detainees.
U.S.-based lawyers for three of the released men praised Palau for giving the men their freedom. “These men want nothing more than to live peaceful, productive lives in a free, democratic nation safe from oppression by the Chinese,” said Eric Tirschwell of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel law firm. “Thanks to Palau, which has graciously offered them a temporary home, they now have that chance.”
Before this transfer of the Uighurs, there were about 221 prisoners still held at Guantanamo.
Palau has also offered to take six of the seven other Uighurs still held at Guantanamo. One remaining Uighur did not receive an invitation to Palau over concerns about his mental health.
Four Uighur detainees were resettled in Bermuda earlier this year. In 2006, Albania accepted five Uighur detainees.
Made up of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets, Palau is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.