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Brown sealed Uighurs deal with White House

From left: Abdulla Abdulqadir, Salahidin Abdulahad, Khalil Mamut and Ablikim Turahun

The secret deal to bring the four Uighurs to Bermuda from Guantánamo Bay was sealed after a meeting at the White House, according to Ewart Brown.

The former premier agreed to an interview with The Royal Gazette to mark the eighth anniversary of the men’s arrival, telling this newspaper: “Not only do I not have regrets but I’m proud that I did what I think was the right thing to do.”

Dr Brown recalled how in May 2009 he was in Washington on a visit to promote Bermuda’s interests, when the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly to bar the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay to the US and its territories, and reject funding for president Barack Obama to close the detention centre.

Dr Brown said his wife Wanda mentioned the issue in passing to him at their hotel and he then read an article in the Washington Post about it on his way to a meeting at the White House.

“I forgot about it, thinking nothing of it, that it would not come up again,” he said. “It was the furthest thought from my mind.”

But at the end of his meeting with an official from the US State Department, the matter did come up.

“Just before I left the White House, the under-secretary I was talking to said the president was very upset that Congress would not allow the budget to bring people from Guantánamo to the United States,” said Dr Brown.

“He [the under-secretary] said ‘we need some help with this. Do you think Bermuda could help?’ I said we could think about it and then I left.

“About four or five hours later, I was on the golf course and I got a call to say the White House wanted to see me again. I said ‘what’s it about?’. They said they didn’t want to talk about it [until I got there].

“I changed and went down. That’s when I was shown the information on each person. I noticed they had never been charged and they were incarcerated for eight years. It seemed to me that these were some people who needed somebody to help them.

“I said ‘four people?’. We have 10,000 on work permits and these guys need help. This would be a good opportunity to do something positive. This would be a good opportunity to do something positive for the United States.”

The former Progressive Labour Party politician said that second meeting, when he was shown classified documents on Khalil Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir, Ablikim Turahun and Salahidin Abdulahad, was with a White House lawyer.

“[The lawyer] said ‘this is what we are talking about’. He explained it. He said ‘I have here the classified documents of the people that we are interested in, if you care to look through them, feel free’ and I did. After I looked at those, I was convinced that we couldn’t go wrong.”

No pressure was put on him to give an immediate answer, according to Dr Brown, and “absolutely nothing” was offered in return.

He asked for time to speak with immigration minister David Burch to check the legality of giving the prisoners refuge on the island.

The White House lawyer told him the issue was “extremely confidential” and asked him to limit his conversations about it to the minister.

“I knew then that there was some risk involved; that’s the chance we should take.”

The Cabinet colleagues discussed the matter via telephone that evening, agreeing to keep the rest of Cabinet out of the loop.

“Cabinet is a leaky ship,” said Dr Brown. “I didn’t think that they would disagree. I knew that they would be upset that they weren’t informed but I didn’t think anybody disagreed with the principle of doing it.”

Dr Brown said the absence of a paper trail at the Cabinet Office in relation to the agreement (see separate story) was not surprising, considering the highly secretive nature of the agreement, and the fact that he never sent any e-mails or other written correspondence about it.

“It was so quiet,” he said. “[Mr] Burch really handled it extremely confidentially. Confidentiality was requested and respected. Maybe [there was] something in writing between the US State Department and the Minister. I don’t know that to be the case.”

Asked if he signed any paperwork, Dr Brown said there may have been a document detailing the “basics” that Bermuda would provide for the Uighurs, such as housing.

The morning after his White House meetings, Dr Brown received a call from Mr Burch.

“He . . . said ‘we can do this’. I don’t know if he consulted the Constitution. He came back [and] confirmed that we could do it.”

After that, he said, the immigration minister took care of the details.

“I think it all happened within a week,” said Dr Brown. “I wasn’t that close to it. It was truly a quiet operation. I didn’t want a lot of conversation, even with me. [Mr Burch] just kept dealing with [an official] from the State Department. They worked together. I got a call when he was on his way [to Cuba].”

As Mr Burch headed to Guantánamo, Dr Brown called Sir Richard Gozney, who was then the Governor, and told him some Chinese Muslims were being given refuge in Bermuda.

“I did not mention Guantánamo,” he admitted, an omission that led to a tense meeting the next day at Government House.

Dr Brown said Sir Richard called him on the morning of June 11 and said he had been contacted by “his people” in Washington. “He was very, very upset.

“He wanted me to come up to Government House and see him immediately and he wanted me to cancel my press conference for later that morning. I said I’d come to see him at Government House as soon as I could get there but that I would not cancel the press conference.”

He said when he came face-to-face with Sir Richard, the Governor was “red-faced and very angry”.

“I think he was very embarrassed that he had to explain what had happened to people at the FCO and other places in Britain.”

Dr Brown said the Governor raised the fact that he had not mentioned Guantánamo during their call the previous evening.

“I said ‘I didn’t know I had to’,” recalled Dr Brown. “It was genuine but by the time he said it I knew he meant I should have sought his permission.”

The former premier said the United Kingdom was not mentioned once during his conversations at the White House and, although he dislikes the colonial relationship, “wasn’t giving them the finger when I did it”.

“It wasn’t part of the feeling when I did it but when I started hearing the comments [that he should have sought permission] — what I call the ‘man-boy’ comments, which I considered to be negative and insulting ... I made comments that I didn’t like the relationship.”

Eight years on, Dr Brown is insistent that he struck the deal for all the right reasons, believing that helping out the US could only work in Bermuda’s interests, while four men never convicted of any terrorist offence could be given sanctuary.

“When I did this, I didn’t think I was being a villain,” he said. “I thought it was a good thing and I thought the Brits would like it. Some of them did, privately. Some highly-placed British politicians were in support of it.”

At the time of their arrival, Dr Brown said the Uighurs would be “landed in Bermuda in the short term, provided with the opportunity to become naturalised citizens and thereafter afforded the right to travel and leave Bermuda, potentially settling elsewhere”.

But the men remain stateless, with the UK understood to still be considering passport applications.

Dr Brown said: “I thought that the British might not have any objection to making them British citizens and they could have. But it’s eight years now. They haven’t, to my knowledge, committed any crime. They have worked hard.”

He said the onus was now on either the UK or the US to give the men citizenship, as Bermuda had no ability to do so.

“As I have told them personally, it surely is not what I thought it was going to be for them, but it’s better than Guantánamo.

“If I had had another term in government I think, I know, I would have made another effort to try to get them some assistance from either the Americans or the British. I would have tried to wage an intense campaign to complete the loop of justice for them. It would be the right thing to do.”