ICO decision on Uighurs
Uighur dossier’ released
A repressed people
Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim minority from the Xinjiang province of far West China.
Human rights activists say they are brutally repressed by the Chinese Government but are not considered threats to the US or any other Western country.
The men were in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 when the US invaded after the September 11 terrorist attacks and conducted an extensive bombing campaign against terrorist group al-Qaeda and the ruling Taleban.
In order to flee the bombs, the men made their way into Pakistan. They were captured by bounty hunters near Tora Bora and turned over to the US for a cash reward. They deny any connections to terrorism.
A dossier of official correspondence about the Uighurs and their relatives has been released by the Government, ten years after the four men came to the island from Guantánamo Bay at the invitation of Ewart Brown.
The e-mails reveal how Bermuda’s top immigration official first heard about their arrival on a newscast and how civil servants have since tried to make Dr Brown’s “humanitarian” gesture to provide sanctuary for the men work within the framework of the island’s immigration laws.
One exchange shows how Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Cabinet minister who helped the former premier to bring the men here in secret, reacted when one of the Uighurs asked for permission for a visitor to come to the island, and then married the woman in an informal religious ceremony upon her arrival.
The men’s lawyer, Richard Horseman, wrote to tell the minister in November 2010 that Chief Immigration Officer Rozy Azhar had ordered the woman to leave once her 21-day visit to the island was up.
Mr Horseman wrote: “I need to know if there is any wiggle room for permission for her [to] stay on.”
Mr Horseman explained that, if not, court action would be considered, although it would be a “last resort” because the Uighurs “certainly do not want to issue against the Bermuda Government, as the Bermuda Government has been their friend”.
Colonel Burch replied that the woman would have to leave and that he was revoking permission for other women due to visit the Uighurs.
“It would seem as if I am the only one who did not know the women were not coming to simply ‘visit’, but that the plan all along was to marry,” Colonel Burch wrote.
“To say I am disappointed would be an understatement, particularly in light of numerous conversations with the men [when] I restated that the priority should first be securing jobs, then sorting out their status, then marriage.”
The records were released to The Royal Gazette by the Department of Immigration last week in response to a public access to information request filed in January 2017.
The Uighur men, Khalil Mamut, Abilikim Turahun, Abdullah Abdulqadir and Salahidin Abdulahat, came to Bermuda on June 11, 2009, arriving in the early hours on a private jet from Guantánamo, where they had been held as prisoners for more than seven years after fleeing religious persecution in their homeland of China.
Colonel Burch, then the Minister of Home Affairs, accompanied them on the aircraft and they were presented to the media at a press conference later that day, during which Dr Brown said the decision to bring them to Bermuda was “the right one from a humanitarian perspective”.
The correspondence released under Pati begins the next day, on June 12, 2009, when Deputy Governor Mark Capes wrote to Cabinet Secretary Marc Telemaque to ask on what legal basis the Government had allowed the men to enter Bermuda and whether they were considered stateless, as Dr Brown had told reporters.
Mr Telemaque asked newly appointed Ms Azhar to assist with answers. She wrote: “I cannot answer these questions as I was not informed of their arrival until I heard it on the news.
“In addition, I was not privy to any information before these gentlemen arrived and no information after they arrived, except what the minister shared with me at a meeting at 2.30pm yesterday.
“I have absolutely no paperwork on these gentlemen, not even their names, so I would be at pains to answer them accurately.”
Ms Azhar added that the minister had the authority to land anyone, with or without conditions, and that the men were not stateless, but refugees.
In an e-mail exchange from July 2009 about a revised permission letter for the men, Ms Azhar wrote that she wanted it to include that any employer would have to satisfy the Department of Immigration that they had considered Bermudians and spouses of Bermudians before giving jobs to the Uighurs.
Dr Brown stepped down as Premier in October 2010 and the next month the row broke out about the Uighurs’ fiancées.
The Pati disclosure shows that before he left office, Dr Brown acted to help relatives of the Uighurs come to the island for a visit, even offering assurances to Britain to enable them to travel through that country.
According to an e-mail about a female visitor, from his executive assistant, dated October 13, 2010, Dr Brown pledged “on behalf of the Government he will guarantee her or anyone else’s passage through the UK, or other transit countries, by offering to pay for a guard [armed if necessary] to escort them through the process”.
Derrick Binns, the home affairs permanent secretary, wrote to Colonel Burch the next month to say the female visitor had arrived, that one of the Uighurs had “married” her in an informal ceremony conducted by another Uighur, and that permission was now being sought for her to remain in Bermuda.
“I advised him that this was most problematic, and contrary to what you had advised — job, status, then wife.”
Referring to Ms Azhar, who was copied in, Dr Binns added: “Madam Chief, you must be loving this.”
Ms Azhar responded: “I am not loving this at all!
“It was not disclosed to us that they are fiancées ... This is a real issue. If she remained and they had children, their children will be stateless.
“Their status must be sorted out first ... This is just making a bad situation even more complicated and problematic to the Government and the UK. Minister, what say you?”
Colonel Burch wrote that he was revoking the visas for the other women due to visit, but Ms Azhar told him: “They all had visa waivers courtesy of the former premier Brown.”
In 2013, Deputy Governor David Arkley wrote to Ms Azhar’s successor, Danette Ming, with more questions about the Uighurs and the law that was used to allow them to be brought here.
Dr Ming said there was nothing on record that made use of the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Act for the landing of the Uighurs in 2009. She wrote: “With nothing on file aligned to the Act, it seems that allowing the Uighurs to enter/land in Bermuda was more humanitarian-focused than legislation-focused.”
She told Mr Arkley that the Uighurs wives were free to “come and go” from Bermuda.
Mr Abdulqadir publicly appealed to the British Government for help in 2017 after his sick five-year-old son was unable to go overseas for medical treatment because he had no travel documents. The issue was resolved last year when the Uighurs became British Overseas Territory citizens, making them and their children eligible for passports and giving them “belonger” status.
The Department of Immigration initially released just eight documents about the Uighurs to The Royal Gazette in response to a Pati request for records of any “permission they or their dependants have to live and/or work in Bermuda”.
After being asked to conduct further searches by the Information Commissioner’s Office, it released another 117 pages of records last week.
In a decision due to be made public on Thursday, the Acting Information Commissioner found that the department did not conduct a reasonable search when processing the Pati request.
The department was found to have conducted a reasonable search during the ICO review.
•To read the Acting Information Commissioner’s decision, click on the PDF under Related Media.
• On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on what we consider to be a controversial or contentious story. As we are legally liable for any libellous or defamatory comments made on our website, this move is for our protection as well as that of our readers.
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