By William Fisher
The probability that some Guantanamo detainees will soon be released into the U.S. will place the administration of President Barack Obama in the eye of a major political hurricane.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have expressed strong opposition to the administration’s reported plan to allow some of the 17 Chinese Uighurs to resettle in the U.S. as part of Obama’s pledge to shut down the controversial prison within a year.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has confirmed the plan for the first time, though he added that a final decision had not been made. He said he understood that almost any administration move on Guantanamo was likely to be controversial. Seven has been the reported as the number of Uighurs the administration wants to release into the U.S.
Gates told a Senate appropriations subcommittee last week, "I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying, 'Not in my district, not in my state,' " He was referring to the number of senators and members of the House.
But Gates said the Uighurs would face persecution if they were returned to China. He added, "It's difficult for the State Department to make the argument to other countries they should take these people that we have deemed in this case not to be dangerous if we won't take any of them ourselves."
There are currently 17 Uighurs who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo since they were arrested in Pakistan in 2002. While these Muslim men have been declared to pose no threat to U.S. security and have been cleared for release, they remain at the notorious prison because no other countries have offered them asylum. A U.S. appeals court has ruled that admission to the U.S. is a matter of immigration law over which regular U.S. courts have no jurisdiction. That decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is now considering the matter.
The Uighurs are primarily from northwestern China. China has been criticized for repressing Uighur religious rights and freedoms.
Before their capture, the Uighurs had traveled to Afghanistan, where they received firearms training at a camp reportedly run by a Uighur separatist.
There are about 240 inmates at Guantánamo. As many as 60, if freed, cannot go back to their homelands because they could face abuse, imprisonment or death. They are from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Several European nations, including Portugal and Lithuania, have said they will consider taking such detainees. Some nations, such as Germany, are divided on the issue. France has recently agreed to accept one prisoner and the European Union has said it would consider accepting others. British Justice Secretary Jack Straw said last week that his country would consider taking Guantánamo Bay detainees if the U.S. asks for such help to close the detention center.
''We will do our best to help and support the policy of the Obama administration to close Guantánamo Bay,'' Straw said. ''If we're asked, of course we'll consider'' accepting detainees, he said.
Some European leaders argue that if the detainees are to be released anywhere, it should first be in the United States.
Many legal scholars and most human rights advocates are pressing the Obama Administration to release cleared prisoners into the U.S.
Professor Francis A. Boyle of the University of Chicago Law School told IPS, “Obviously the United States government cannot return them to China, where they will be persecuted, which would violate our obligations under international law. And they certainly cannot be detained indefinitely, which would violate their international human rights, which the Bush administration has already done grievously now for a number of years. The lawful and humanitarian alternative would be to grant them political asylum and admit them into the United States.”
And Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told IPS, "It is a violation of basic human rights and our Constitution that the United States is continuing to imprison people, such as the Uighurs, who it acknowledges are innocent and present no danger. These men were swept up by mistake, sold to the U.S. for bounty, and rendered to Guantanamo where they have spent years in prison under often brutal conditions."
He added, "If we are to restore the rule of law, the Uighurs must be released in the United States. Keeping innocent people behind bars at an off-shore prison undermines not only our core values but our security as well."
Release of cleared prisoners is seen as a crucial step to the Obama Administration’s plans to close the prison and relocate the detainees.
To win their freedom, the Uighurs filed suit against the government. Last year, a U.S. district court ordered their release. The decision was appealed by the Bush administration, and was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Lawyers for the Uighurs have now appealed to the Supreme Court.
Members of a Uighur community in Northern Virginia have offered to help the detainees to resettle there.
In 2006, the U.S. released five Uighurs to Albania. After pressure from Beijing, which also urged other countries with Uighur communities not to accept the released detainees, Albania declined to take any more. Four remain in Albania and one has recently been granted asylum in Sweden.
Within Guantanamo, Uighurs are not considered a grave threat and are allowed privileges such as television, that are not available to other detainees.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is continuing to struggle with the issue of what to do with the 50 to 100 detainees at Guantanamo who Secretary Gates told Congress were considered too dangerous to release but could not be tried in U.S. civilian courts because evidence against them was based on hearsay or was obtained through torture.
Gates told Congress that the administration might continue to use the controversial military commissions set up by former President Bush, and later approved by Congress, to prosecute some of the detainees. President Obama ordered a 120-day halt to all military commission trials during his first days in office. That moratorium comes to an end in mid-May.
Lawmakers of both political parties have become increasingly vocal in asserting that the administration announced it would close Guantánamo before it had a plan for housing and prosecuting some detainees and releasing others.
“The question of where the terrorists at Guantánamo will be sent is no joking matter,” according to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “The administration needs to tell the American people how it will keep the terrorists at Guantánamo out of our neighborhoods and off of the battlefield.”
Members of Congress were already playing the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) game, pleading with Gates not to send the detainees to their states. “Please not at Leavenworth,” said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas. “This is a hot topic in my state.”
Gates has asked for $50 million in case a facility needs to be built quickly to house the detainees. He said he is aware that such a facility would be unpopular with lawmakers.
Republicans in Congress say Guantánamo should remain in operation and are mobilizing to fight the release of any detainees into the United States.
Critics of the administration’s actions have tended to label all Guantanamo detainees as “terrorists,” although many have been cleared for release and there is substantial evidence that other detainees were “sold” to the U.S. military for cash while others were simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.