GENEVA – The Swiss government on Wednesday approved the resettlement of two Chinese inmates at Guantanamo as part of its commitment to help President Barack Obama's administration close the detention center.
Beijing had objected to the move, calling the brothers terrorist suspects who should face justice in China.
"We have stable, good relations with China and we want to keep them that way," Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said.
Switzerland's decision to take in the ethnic Uighur brothers was guided by humanitarian principles and should not be interpreted as giving preference to one country over another, she said.
Tensions between China's majority Han population and Uighurs in the Western region of Xinjiang have flared up recently, and Beijing is highly sensitive to any separatist inclinations.
Widmer-Schlumpf said Switzerland carefully examined the men's backgrounds and even checked DNA samples before concluding they likely posed no security risk.
The brothers, who have been held in Guantanamo since 2001 and 2002, will probably be transferred to Switzerland within a month, she said. In January, an Uzbek became the first former inmate of the U.S. detention center to be resettled in Switzerland.
The Alpine nation is hoping to curry favor with the Obama administration as it struggles to conclude a drawn-out dispute over wealthy Americans who hid billions of dollars from the Internal Revenue Service in Swiss bank accounts.
Widmer-Schlumpf told reporters in the capital, Bern, that Switzerland wasn't making any demands on Washington for taking in the Guantanamo inmates. "We assume that the United States won't hold this decision against us though," she added coyly, declining to say whether any informal arrangements were made.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said "The United States is grateful to the government of Switzerland and the canton of Jura for this latest humanitarian gesture and for its consistent support of our efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility."
The men are craftsmen who would quickly find employment in Switzerland, the justice minister said.
They will be resettled in the northwestern canton (state) of Jura, where officials on Tuesday also approved the move.
Other European nations that have agreed to take in Guantanamo detainees include France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and Portugal.
Elizabeth Gilson, a lawyer in New Haven, Connecticut, said the brothers are her clients, Arkin Mahmud and Bahtiyar Mahnut. Their surnames are spelled differently in court and military documents.
"I just got the good news this morning," Gilson said, after spending a week in Switzerland recently lobbying for the brothers' transfer.
Seven Uighurs remain at Guantanamo despite being cleared for release by the U.S. military. Mahmud was the only one who had not been invited to relocate to the Pacific island nation of Palau.
Palau indicated it had concerns about Mahmud's mental health. Gilson said that all the Uighurs spent 18 months in solitary confinement. "He took it harder than the others," she said.
But since being moved to a less restrictive environment, Guantanamo's Camp Iguana, Mahmud is "much improved," Gilson said.
The Swiss flew a team of doctors, lawyers and a translator to Guantanamo in August to examine the brothers and two other detainees, Gilson said. The Uzbek who has been resettled in Switzerland was one of those examined, she said.
After intensive interviews, Gilson said, the Swiss team decided the brothers were good candidates for relocation.
Six other Uighurs went to Palau last year. Another four were resettled in Bermuda.