Uighurs’ lawyer to Premier: Give them citizenship
The lawyer for four Uighur refugees stateless and stranded in Bermuda, has written an emotive letter asking new Premier Craig Cannonier to help them.
According to Richard Horseman, the men “remain in limbo, stuck in the Bermuda Triangle” almost four years after they were released from detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
He told the Premier they are all fathers now and have been “left to fend for themselves” .
He urged Mr Cannonier to pass legislation to “right this wrong” and give them Bermuda citizenship and a secure future.
Muslims Ablikim Turahun, Khalil Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir and Salahidin Andulahad were detained by US forces in Afghanistan after fleeing their homeland of Chinese Turkestan due to persecution by the Chinese authorities.
They were taken to the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay on suspicion of being terrorists — which they always denied.
After seven years locked up there, they were finally released by the US long after it had been determined that they were not enemy combatants.
They were flown to Bermuda in 2009 and given sanctuary after then Premier Ewart Brown struck a secret deal with the US without consulting the British Government.
The UK has insisted ever since that the men have no entitlement to British nationality, including British citizenship or British Overseas Territories citizenship, and are not eligible to apply for British passports.
It has also said that in order for them to gain refugee status, the Bermuda Government would have to ask the UK to extend the 1951 Refugee Convention to the Island. The Uighurs, from Turkestan, can live and work in Bermuda in the meantime — but they have struggled to find employment.
In a statement issued last night with former Immigration Minister David Burch [see related story], Dr Brown said the men were lucky recipients of a “heartfelt humanitarian act” and denied that they were ever guaranteed Bermuda status.
In his letter to Mr Cannonier, dated January 19 and copied to this newspaper, Mr Horseman wrote: “When they were first taken out of their prison cells in Guantánamo Bay and advised that they were going to be transferred to Bermuda, the men were assured that they would be free men. They were told that if they got on the plane waiting on the tarmac to take them to Bermuda, after one year in Bermuda, they would obtain citizenship and have passports. That never came to pass.
“When that didn't happen, Dr Ewart Brown assured the men, that once he vacated his office, they would be fine and they would then receive passports. That didn't happen.”
Mr Horseman continued: “The Uighurs were airlifted to Bermuda under the cover of darkness, riding on a wing of promises that could never be kept. Indeed it was [former Immigration Minister Lt] Colonel [David] Burch himself who travelled to Cuba and met the Uighurs in Guantánamo Bay. The Colonel reassured the men that they would be free and everything would work out. Relying on these assurances Abdulla, Ablikim, Khalil and Salahidin made a leap of faith and boarded the plane to Bermuda.
“Only Abdullah had ever heard of the word 'Bermuda' before. He had heard of the Triangle and only knew it as place where people disappear. The men, desperate to marry, each found love and marriage and something they deeply needed, a family. Each of the men now either has a child or is expecting a child. They are grateful for having been granted the opportunity to be wed and have children.”
Urging Mr Cannonier to take action, he said: “Premier, after nearly four years, the men remain in limbo. They are stuck in the Bermuda Triangle. The authors of their misfortune have now vanished into thin air. The men are left to fend for themselves.
“Premier, the time has now come to right this wrong. I believe that the appropriate solution is for the Bermuda Government to pass legislation that will grant the Uighurs, their spouses and children Bermuda status. I believe that we can work together now with Great Britain and solve this crisis. There are children's lives at stake and we owe it to these men not to tuck them away in some corner and hope it all goes away; hope that they will be lost in the Triangle.
“Premier, it will take bold action and cooperation with the United Kingdom with a new pledge to honour our commitments under our Constitution in order to forge a solution to this humanitarian crisis.”
Mr Horseman said the men have been treated well by Bermudians since they arrived, but long for freedom.
“The people of Bermuda have showed the Uighurs compassion, respect and offers of help have come from all corners of our Country and from all walks of life. Bermuda once again has demonstrated that we have some of the most benevolent caring citizens of any country. The men wish to convey their gratitude to the people of Bermuda. They have been welcomed into Bermuda and they know how good the Bermudian people are. They ask God to bless all of Bermuda and its people,” said the lawyer.
“Premier, we are asking you to lead the way and take the necessary steps to grant the Uighurs Bermuda status. This of course cannot likely be achieved without the support and cooperation of the United Kingdom, but we have to try. I believe that this newly elected Government can seize the initiative and fulfil the broken promises made to the Uighurs and give them what they were promised, true freedom.”
The Royal Gazette invited Mr Cannonier and Government House to respond to the letter. A Government House spokesman declined to comment, as did Mr Cannonier.
Since arriving in Bermuda in the middle of the night almost four years ago, the four Uighurs have all married.
Two of them have young sons, and the other two are fathers-to-be.
They said they are happy in Bermuda and feel welcome — but yet they have the continued stress of being stateless and unable to travel [see main story].
They cannot make foreign trips with their wives — who are Uighurs from Chinese Turkestan and Kurdistan — and their children have no travel documents.
Khalil Mamut, who is 34 years old, told
The Royal Gazette yesterday: “I got these grey hairs from all this stress.”
He said he is “very happy of course” that he lives in Bermuda and his wife is expecting a son.
And he explained: “We are so sorry for the problems — it's not our fault. We hope to solve this issue completely and our lawyer Richard Horseman is working on that for us. We would like to stay in Bermuda, but our problem is to get citizenship for us and our children. We cannot leave and cannot travel with our wives.”
Mr Horseman explained that the men met their wives online, and spent hours chatting to them on the internet Skype phone. Then, the ladies — three from Turkestan and one from Kurdistan — came to Bermuda as visitors to see if they were compatible.
After the couples married, Government gave the women permission to stay.
Abdulla Abdulqadir now has a 17-month-old son, Muhammad; Ablikim Turahun, 41, is father to seven-month-old Ali. Salahidin Andulahad is also expecting a child.
The men live in government accommodation — they would prefer that the exact location is not published — and have jobs in construction and landscaping.
Speaking with the help of Mr Mamut as translator, Mr Turahun said he is concerned that Ali does not have a passport and cannot accompany his wife when she wants to visit her family.
“I hope Government will give us some kind of passport for the baby,” he said. “Four years have passed, the children have nothing, and we don't want our children to become political victims like us.”
Mr Horseman said: “There is no provision under current Bermuda law that will grant the men, their wives, and children citizenship. They were promised citizenship and passports but unfortunately, the manner in the way they were brought to Bermuda, without consultation or authorisation from the United Kingdom, ensured that the promise made could never be kept. While some will say that they should just be happy here, the men didn't sign up for asylum in Bermuda for the rest of their lives. They were promised freedom and as nice as Bermuda is, they are effectively imprisoned here.
“We are asking the new Government, the Opposition and the people of Bermuda to support action that will grant them the rights of citizenship and a passport. This will allow them to be free. We owe it to them to honour the promises made to them if we can. One possible solution may be an amendment to the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Act, that would grant them Bermuda status. The Bermuda Government would have to consult with the Governor and the United Kingdom and it may be that now is a window of opportunity for something to be achieved. Clearly there was friction between past governments and Government House in regard to the Uighurs and how the former Premier brought them to Bermuda.
“But we must not lose sight that these are human beings who we accepted into our community and we have a duty to help them as best we can. They had never heard of Bermuda. They only came here because of the promises that were made to them and those promises have not been honoured. Now I know that there will be the naysayers who will be calling in on the talk shows and criticising this proposal but I think that most Bermudians understand that these men are not at fault and the public would support any plan that will assist them. I would ask the Bermuda population to voice their support for any plan that would render their presence in Bermuda lawful. It will likely involve a change in the law and it will require the support of the UK.
“We are therefore calling on the new Government to investigate and pursue the appropriate means in which to accomplish this. We believe that Government House will cooperate and assist Bermuda in resolving this matter. I have been in touch with Government House and it has been communicated to the men that the UK will assist the men where they can. The amendment of the Immigration Act with the blessing and ascent of the Governor may be the most effective and expeditious way to solve the citizenship problem.”