In China's shadow, Gitmo Uighurs languish on Palau

Mar 17, 2013, 8:32 PM EDT
In this photo taken on Feb. 10, 2013, local workers walk past a vacant and boarded up hotel on the main street of Koror, Palau. Palauan officials say construction on the hotel, backed by Chinese investors, stopped abruptly after the tiny South Pacific nation announced it would temporarily accept several ethnic Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, released from Guantanamo after a U.S. federal judge ruled they were not a significant security threat. China claims the Uighurs are terrorists and wants them returne
(AP Photo/Eric Talmadge)

KOROR, Palau (AP) — Ahmat Abdulahad can't help but laugh at the irony of his predicament.

He and five other Chinese Muslims released from America's Guantanamo military prison in 2009 thought they would be living on this remote island for a few months, maybe a year.

But more than three years later, they are still in Palau, and the patience — and funding of this poor nation — is running out. The government has cut Abdulahad's monthly stipend, so he can't pay his bills, not even those from the Palau Power Utility Corp., where he works as a night watchman. So he and his family, inadvertent inhabitants of one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific, are learning to make do without electricity.

Palau has become a prolonged stopover in what is now a 12-year odyssey for a half dozen men from China's ethnic Uighur minority. They were swept up in Afghanistan as suspected terrorists, held without trial in Guantanamo for more than eight years, then became a cause celebre for Guantanamo opponents in the U.S., who saw them as hapless victims of the anti-terrorism effort and the circumvention of due process in the name of national security.

Now, all but one of them — who quietly managed to make his way to Turkey to join his wife a few months ago — remain stuck on Palau because no one else will take them.

"We are like the pieces in a chess game," Abdulahad, who is 42, said at a small, drab apartment building by the sea where three of the men live with their wives and children. He wears a prosthetic limb because he lost part of his left leg in the air raid when he was captured. "They have played us like that all these years."

Both the men and Palau's president say pressure from China, which says they are terrorists despite their release, is making it impossible for them to find refuge anywhere else. And having met a U.S. federal court order to release them from Guantanamo, U.S. government interest in finding them a permanent home appears to have dried up — though officials say they are doing all they can.

"It's no secret China is very angry with Palau because of the resettlement," President Tommy Remengesau said in a recent interview with The Associated Press, one of his first since taking office in January. "It doesn't take a blind man not to notice that nobody wanted to take these men. The pressure was there from the beginning and the pressure continues to be there. Nobody will be open enough to say that they welcome the Uighurs because of that pressure."

China's Foreign Ministry and national police ministry did not respond to faxed requests for comment about Beijing pressuring other governments not to accept the Uighurs.

The Uighurs come from Xinjiang, an isolated region of western China that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They are Turkic-speaking Muslims who say they have long been repressed by the Chinese government. Many want Xinjiang to become independent, and in recent years, some have staged bombings and other attacks, mostly against police, government and military targets.

China considers Uighurs held in Guantanamo to be terrorists and has demanded they be repatriated. But since they would almost certainly face imprisonment or even torture if sent back to China, other countries had to be found. The U.S. refused to grant them asylum. Nearly a dozen now live in Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador and Switzerland. Three remain in custody at the U.S. Navy facility in Cuba.

Palau, a country of 20,000 people that relies heavily on the United States for defense and aid, agreed to take six Uighurs on a temporary basis. The former U.S. trust territory, which became independent in 1994, didn't have much to lose. It is one of the few countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, instead of Beijing, and to sweeten the deal, Washington promised $600,000 to help pay for the men's stay.

But Palau says it has done enough.

"The funds have run out. My government is not in a financial situation to deal with them here," Remengesau said. "Culturally it just doesn't fit. Their religion is different from 99 percent of the people of Palau. It hasn't been an entirely stable situation for us. They're not happy. If they had their choice, they would rather be somewhere else."

Even Palau has felt Beijing's wrath, he said, noting that construction of a beachfront resort being developed by Chinese investors abruptly stopped as soon as the Uighur deal was announced. It is a major eyesore, boarded up and vacant, along the main street of Koror, Palau's biggest town, and just a short walk from a bustling hotel built by Taiwanese developers.

Former President Johnson Toribiong, who was voted out of office in November in part because of allegations that he misused the funds intended for the Uighurs, said he never intended for Palau to be a final destination.

"I assumed that I would be able to take care of them and by the end of my term find them a permanent place to go to," he said.

Last month, Palau's government confirmed that one of the men, Adel Noori, had left the island. According to a local newspaper, Noori made his way to Turkey via Japan. Officials in Palau and Washington say they cannot comment because of security concerns.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States is working diligently to seek permanent homes for the remaining Uighurs and is "coordinating closely with Palau on matters related to the remaining individuals temporarily resettled there."

But officials on Palau say they are not even sure who to contact in Washington. Special envoy Daniel Fried, who negotiated the Palau deal and was in charge of finding placements for cleared detainees at Guantanamo, was transferred to a new job in January. No replacement has been named, which has been widely seen as more evidence that President Barack Obama's zeal to close Guantanamo — a major campaign promise before his election in 2008 — has waned under congressional opposition.

"We need a timetable, and a plan of action. That's where the frustration comes," Remengesau said. "We are looking for a happy ending. These are human beings. They deserve respect."

For now, the five Uighur men eke by, most working as security guards and making about $500 a month, which is about the poverty level even by Palauan standards. Prospective employers are reluctant to hire them, and if they speak English at all, it is mostly what they picked up in prison. The only other Muslims on Palau are a small number of Bangladeshis.

"When we were released we were very happy," said Abdulghappar Abdulrahman, another of the Uighurs. "But now it is like being in Guantanamo again."


Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington, contributed to this report.