Uighurs Held at Guantanamo Agree to Go to Palau

KOROR, Palau - Three Chinese Muslims imprisoned for years at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay have agreed to be released to the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, their lawyers told The Associated Press.

The deals struck recently with U.S. officials are the first among a group of 13 Uighur detainees at Guantanamo who have been offered relocation to Palau under President Barack Obama's plans to close the controversial prison in Cuba. Negotiations are continuing with the rest of the group.

Relocating the Uighurs would bring the Obama administration a step closer to its goal of finding new homes for terrorism suspects and others captured in Afghanistan who have been cleared of wrongdoing but cannot go home for fear of persecution.

But it has also raised tension with Beijing, which regards the inmates as terrorist suspects and wants them returned to China.

George Clarke, the lawyer for two of the Uighurs, Dawut Abdurehim and Anwar Assan, said Tuesday that they had both recently formally accepted Washington's offer to relocate them to Palau. Eric Tirschwell, the lawyer for four other Uighurs at Guantanamo, said Wednesday that one of his clients had also accepted the offer.

"They're excited," Clarke told The Associated Press by telephone from Washington. "They want to get the heck out of Guantanamo Bay. They look forward to getting to Palau and getting on with their lives."

A State Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks with other Uighurs are continuing, confirmed "some of the Uighur detainees have agreed to resettlement in Palau" but declined to give details.

Uighurs who have accepted the offer could be transferred to Palau as soon as October, Clarke said.
The 13 Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs), Turkic Muslims from far western China, have been held by the United States since their capture in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. The Pentagon determined last year they were not "enemy combatants," but they have been in legal limbo ever since.

Mark Bezner, the top American official in Palau, said Wednesday he had not yet received formal notification on the Uighurs. "Perhaps we'll get a confirmation in the next couple of days from Washington," he said.

Tirschwell declined to reveal which of his clients has agreed to the deal, but said "he's looking forward to enjoying the freedom that he deserves and that he's been denied for almost eight years." The lawyers also declined to give details of agreements struck with U.S. officials.

Of the 10 other Uighur detainees remaining at the U.S. military base in Cuba, none have ruled out moving to Palau. Attorneys representing the other men declined to comment or did not return messages left by AP.

Palau, a developing country of 20,000 that is dependent on U.S. development funds, in June offered to take the Uighurs at Guantanamo.

Palau's President Johnson Toribiong told the AP at the time that some of the men were concerned about his country's relative proximity to China -- it lies about 500 miles east of the Philippines. U.S. officials insisted they would be safe there.

Clarke has said previously that the detainees had been concerned about whether they would be allowed to travel after getting settled in Palau. His clients hope eventually to make the Hajj, or holy pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Uighurs will not be eligible for Palauan passports but the government has said the men would be free to travel so long as another country accepted them. It's not clear what passports they would have.

No Uighurs currently live in Palau, though there is a Muslim population of about 400 -- mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers.

The agreements need U.S. Congressional approval before the move can go ahead, a process that is expected to take about two weeks.

Isaac Soaladaob, chief of staff to Toribiong, said the government had not been informed yet of any formal agreements but that the country was expecting the Uighur relocation plan to go ahead.

"We know that a number of men plan on coming and we are working on the technical aspects of their arrival," Soaladaob said.

Four other Uighurs held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay were resettled in Bermuda in June.