Page last updated at 15:36 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Guantanamo Uighurs start new life in Palau

Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman explains how he came to be at Guantanamo

By Matt Prodger
BBC Newsnight

At 0300 on 1 November 2009, the roar of a C17 US military transport plane shattered the silence at an airport in Palau, its landing lights off, invisible against the night sky.

Waiting anxiously on the tarmac was Johnson Toribiong, president of the tiny Pacific island state with a population of just 20,000 people.

Six more residents were about to be added. All of them were Muslim Uighurs from western China, who 20 hours earlier had been detainees at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Now they walked off the plane as free men, to begin a new life.

Palau is a country with an umbilical cord to the United States. More than a third of its revenue comes from there, one side of a deal which allows the US to use the islands as military bases.

The US has struck another deal with Palau, getting them to provide a temporary home for up to a dozen Uighurs who were captured during the US-led war in Afghanistan, but not later classified as "enemy combatants".

China wants them to be returned there, but the US says it cannot repatriate them due to the risk of mistreatment.

'Sold to the US'

Beijing has frequently cracked down on Uighur dissidents, who it accuses of seeking an independent homeland in the western province of Xinjiang.

"The Uighurs in my opinion are victims," Mr Toribiong said. "They were caught in Afghanistan I believe, they were taken to the United States - they were presumed to be terrorists, but since they were found not to be enemy combatants or not terrorists why keep them in jail?

"They should have gone home. Unfortunately their home is in China which considers them terrorists."

President Johnson Toribiong
President Toribiong says the Uighurs are victims and should not be jailed

Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman is one of the Palau Uighurs.

In 2001 he left China, and travelled overland to Taliban-run Afghanistan. He was, he says, fleeing persecution.

"At that time Afghanistan was the only country in Central Asia which had no agreements with China - because it was not sending refugees back to China and I heard that there were some Uighurs living there," he told the BBC.

"As I got to Afghanistan US forces entered the country. US troops promised to pay a lot of money to people or authorities who brought them outsiders.

"Because of this and the bombing of Afghanistan, I left the country and went to Pakistan. People in Pakistan captured me and handed me to the Pakistani authorities, who sold me to the US for $5,000."

Nobody disputes that the Uighurs received basic training in the use of guns while in Afghanistan.

The US initially classed them as enemy combatants, and only recently did they publicly downgrade their status.

But the US refused Chinese requests to send them back to China, so they remained at Guantanamo.

'Temporary home'

Four other Uighur detainees were resettled in Bermuda earlier in 2009, and another five went to Albania in 2006.

The Uighurs have been told their presence in Palau is temporary, even though new houses are being built for them.

Mr Toribiong told the BBC that they would be given a home for up to two years.

Street scene, Palau
New homes are being built for the Uighurs in Palau

"Initially, they will be attending a crash course in the English language and of our culture and history for a couple of months. We'll interview them to find out about their skills, and then try to place them where they'll be gainfully employed," he said.

The US recently agreed to ignore a deadline to cut funding to Palau and extended its current level of payments by another year, timing which Palau's authorities say is entirely coincidental, and had nothing to do with the decision to take the Uighurs.

US media reports suggested the package amounted to a $200m payment to Palau to take the Uighurs.

"If only," laughed Mr Toribiong's legal adviser Kevin Kirk, who was involved in the negotiations, when asked about the matter.


"Personally - and I'm joking here - I'd have taken the whole of Guantanamo Bay for $200m. But there was no such offer ever."

For the six Palau Uighurs, leaving Palau is not a problem - being allowed to enter another country is.

So they are in limbo, and are unlikely ever to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, an almost essential trip for any devout Muslim.

They are unable to communicate with their families because China blocks the phone calls.

"I haven't been in touch with them," says Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman as he sits beside the shore in Palau. "I have no idea whether they are alive."

Far across the Pacific, more than 200 other prisoners await their fate.

US President Barack Obama had said he would close Guantanamo by January 2010, a deadline which will not be met. But what to do with the last of its captives?

Watch Matt Prodger's film in full on Newsnight on Thursday 14 January 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

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