HAMILTON, Bermuda – Five years after four Chinese Muslim Uighurs were flown to Bermuda in a secret deal masterminded by then-Premier Ewart Brown, they remain stateless and unable to leave the island.
On Thursday’s fifth anniversary of their arrival from Guantanamo, Cuba, the former detainees are still without passports and seem unlikely to get them anytime soon.
U.S. authorities arrested 22 Chinese Uighurs during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Uighurs are a mainly Muslim, Turkic people who live in the remote northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Many Uighur residents resent the rule of Beijing and the influx of Han Chinese, who have come to dominate the region’s economy, and some Uighurs have resorted to violence against China.
The U.S. military concluded by 2003 that the Uighurs captured in Afghanistan were not enemy combatants and in 2006 the administration of President George W. Bush sent five Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo to Albania.
The last three Uighurs left Guantanamo last December.
Amnesty International says the four Uighurs in Bermuda deserve the “basic human right” to travel and is urging Bermudans to write to Premier Michael Dunkley asking that the former detainees be given travel documents.
Suzanne Wilson, executive director of the local chapter of AI, said the men’s continued stateless status was a sad indictment of this British Overseas Territory.
“Life is certainly better here than in Guantanamo. Five years on, our guest Uighurs are heading towards middle age, with the responsibilities of family and the normal wish to improve their lot, but they still lack a basic human right: the right of freedom to travel,” she said.
Dunkley, who described the four as “pawns of other people” in 2010, declined this week to comment on their situation.
Gov. George Fergusson, who represents Britain in Bermuda, and U.S. Consul-General Bob Settje said their respective governments were discussing the situation.
Britain is on record as saying it is “a matter for the Bermuda government.”
Khalil Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir, Ablikim Turahun and Salahidin Abdulahad were brought to Bermuda from Cuba after Brown and then- National Security Minister David Burch struck a deal with the United States without the knowledge of the British government, sparking outrage in London.
“These men are landed in Bermuda in the short term, provided with the opportunity to become naturalized citizens and thereafter afforded the right to travel and leave Bermuda, potentially settling elsewhere,” Brown said five years ago on their arrival.
Brown, who has since left active politics, said this week he is puzzled as to why the British government has not resolved the situation.
“Maybe they are waiting for a formal request from the Bermuda government. I am proud of the fact that these men have established a track record of hard work and dedication to their families,” the former premier said.