WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four Chinese detainees from Guantanamo Bay arrived in Bermuda on Thursday after being freed by U.S. authorities in the Obama administration’s latest move to close the controversial prison camp for terror suspects.
Their release took place the same day China repeated its demand for repatriation of all 17 members of the Uighur ethnic group held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. China said it opposed any third country accepting the men.
Attorneys for the four Muslim men, who were held for seven years before being cleared by U.S. authorities as terrorism suspects, said they will take part in Bermuda’s foreign guest worker program.
They arrived at Bermuda’s international airport on a charter aircraft Thursday morning.
Speaking for the group, one of the freed detainees thanked Bermuda’s government and people. “Growing up under communism,” Abdul Nasser said, “we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring.”
But Britain expressed concerns about the move and said it had asked for and would help Bermuda conduct a security assessment of the four men, who do not have travel documents and cannot leave the British overseas territory.
“We have underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted the United Kingdom on whether this falls within their competence or is a foreign affairs or security issue for which the Bermuda Government do not have delegated responsibility,” said a spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the State Department said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the matter with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Thursday.
The U.S. government has said it could not return the Uighurs to China because they would face persecution, and it has searched for months for a nation willing to accept them.
Earlier this year the Obama administration said it was considering freeing them in the United States, but a political firestorm erupted, with many members of the U.S. Congress opposing such a transfer.
Speaking on condition of anonymity a State Department official said Washington negotiated the release of the four Uighurs directly with Bermuda’s government on the understanding it was consulting Bermuda’s British-appointed governor.
When asked if U.S. authorities had consulted the British government, the official said: “We did talk to them before the Uighurs got on the plane.”
The 17 Uighurs, who come from China’s largely Muslim far west region of Xinjiang, had been captured by the U.S. government during the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 hijacking attacks in the United Sates.
Their lawyers said the four men — Huzaifa Parhat, Abdul Semet, Abdul Nasser and Jalal Jalaladiny — never took hostile action against the United States and were sold to U.S. forces by bounty hunters.
“When political opportunists blocked justice in our own country, Bermuda has reminded her old friend America what justice is,” said Sabin Willett, one of the American lawyers for the Uighurs.
The tropical Pacific island nation of Palau said on Wednesday it had agreed to temporarily take the Uighurs as a humanitarian gesture and to help President Barack Obama close the prison. The remaining 13 Uighurs could still go to Palau.
Germany’s Spiegel Online reported that Palau Foreign Minister Sandra Pierantozzi said, “The final decision on whether the men want to come to us is their own decision. We will ask each one individually.”
She was quoted as saying the United States had promised to pay $85,000 for each prisoner Palau accepts.
In one of his first acts in office in January, Obama ordered the closing within a year of the Guantanamo prison camp, which now holds 234 detainees following the departure of the four Uighurs.
“By helping accomplish the president’s objective of closing Guantanamo, the transfer of these detainees will make America safer,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, who is leading the administration’s efforts to shut down the facility.
Guantanamo was opened in 2002 under then-President George W. Bush and has drawn international condemnation and criticism from human rights groups. Since 2002, more than 540 detainees have left Guantanamo for various foreign nations.
Five Uighurs who were sent from Guantanamo to Albania in 2006 have not been engaged in criminal or terrorist activities since their release, the Justice Department said in announcing the release of the four other men to Bermuda.
additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Jane Sutton in Miami; editing by Paul Simao