WASHINGTON — To the relief of the Obama administration, the South Pacific island nation of Palau agreed Wednesday to take the 17 Muslim Uighurs from China who're still being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, the first major release of detainees since President Barack Obama announced his plan to close the prison by January.
The State Department expressed gratitude for the offer, but it said the details haven't been settled. Spokesman Ian Kelly also confirmed that the U.S. and Palau, which is home to about 21,000 people, are discussing a $200 million U.S. aid package for the next several years, but he said there was no connection between the two discussions.
The administration has sent a special envoy around the world in search of a new home for the Uighurs. The Bush administration determined four years ago that the Uighurs aren't a threat to the U.S., but was reluctant to turn them over to China, which labeled them terrorists leading an Islamic separatist movement.
Germany turned down a U.S. request last week, and Australia was still considering a new request when the president of Palau issued a statement yesterday. Conservative Republicans, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have campaigned against resettling the Uighurs in the U.S., but until now, no other country would accept them.
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On Capitol Hill Wednesday, both Democrats and Republicans criticized the Bush administration for seizing them in Afghanistan after paying bounties to local officials who turned them in, treating them as terrorists at Guantanamo — and permitting the Chinese government to interrogate them at the prison.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight Subcommittee, said at a hearing that the Uighurs "are a peace loving people who seek only civil rights."
In rare bipartisan agreement, the panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., added he was disturbed that fellow Republicans didn't also defend innocent Uighur detainees.
He was referring to Gingrich, who said in May that the Uighurs were "trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001." He said that their goal was to "establish a separate Sharia state," based on Islamic law.
Rohrabacher, a staunch conservative, said: "I always and still support Guantanamo as a prison for terrorists . . . but Uighurs are not enemy combatants. It is unfortunate that other members of my party have not been so principled."
Unlike most of the detainees held at Guantanamo, these men weren't picked up on the battlefield, he said. They were turned over to the U.S. in 2001 by bounty hunters in Pakistan. Rohrabacher, who'd been a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, said the source of evidence against the Uighurs "was the Communist Chinese."
Delahunt said China's attitude about the Uighurs — as members of a terrorist organization affiliated with al Qaida — was the reason it was so difficult to find another country to accept them.
"Until today's announcement, finding a suitable venue to resettle the Uighurs was extremely difficult because nations were profoundly concerned about the reaction of the Communist Chinese."
Both congressmen asked to interview the detainees, but their requests were rebuffed. They were shocked to learn that a Chinese delegation had been permitted access.
"The Chinese communists were allowed access not only to interrogate but to intimidate the Chinese," Delahunt testified.
The Pentagon didn't dispute Delahunt.
"All foreign visits with detainees are supervised, and our policy is and always has been, for humane treatment," said J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Uighur people are a predominantly Muslim minority concentrated in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China. The Communist party took control of resource-rich Xinjiang in 1949. Since then, it's been the scene of ethnic and political tension.
"The Uighur people are opposed to terrorism and violence because we ourselves are victims of terrorism," testified Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uighur Congress and the American Uighur Association. "The Chinese government has used our Islamic faith against us and labeled Uighurs terrorists to justify crackdowns and security sweeps as part of the war on terror."
Kadeer was imprisoned in China for six years and exiled in 2005 for her efforts to draw attention to the Uighur plight.
"Chinese restrictions on peaceful religious activity and expression in Xinjiang are particularly egregious and draconian in scope," observed Felice Gaer, the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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