Lawyer recalls pledge that Uighurs would receive Bermuda citizenship
Government Minister David Burch pledged that four Uighur men who came to Bermuda in 2009 would get citizenship within a year, according to the American lawyer who helped them.
That statement yesterday from Sabin Willett contradicted one issued on Monday by Lt Col Burch and former Premier Ewart Brown saying: “We categorically deny that we reassured anyone that we would provide these men Bermuda status. We could not give what we were not empowered to give.”
Mr Willett declined to comment on the disparity between his recollection of events and the stance taken by the former politicians, telling
The Royal Gazette: “I prefer not to comment on the statements of others. I believe my own statement to you is accurate.”
The issue hit the headlines again this week because the Uighurs’ Bermuda lawyer, Richard Horseman, wrote a letter to new Premier Craig Cannonier saying they had been failed by the previous administration.
“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,” wrote Mr Horseman. 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 June 2009 and given sanctuary after Dr 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 citizenship or British Overseas Territories citizenship, and are not eligible to apply for British passports.
Yesterday, Mr Willett said: “We and our clients were extremely grateful for the leadership and political courage shown by Dr Brown and Col Burch in helping free these men in 2009, and in helping with numerous logistical issues after they arrived. The Bermuda Government was courteous, diligent, and tremendously helpful. I am aware that certain disagreements have arisen since then, which I hope can be resolved amicably.”
Summarising events in 2009, he said: “In late May and early June, 2009, I participated in a series of telephone conversations among and between representatives of the US government, our law firm, and the Government of Bermuda.”
He said he was introduced to Lt Col Burch who said he was working with Dr Brown in connection with the matter. He had two conference calls with Lt Col Burch in early June 2009 to discuss the release from Guantánamo Bay.
He said of the second call, on June 5: “The call included Col Burch, one of his colleagues, a US consultant representing Bermuda, representatives of the US government, and my law partner. During the June 5, 2009 conference call, we discussed the terms upon which our Uighur clients would be brought into Bermuda. Col Burch explained that they would be landed as guest workers, under a programme in which the Government of Bermuda has authority to bring foreign persons into the country.
“The inability of our clients to return — either to China or to Guantánamo — was discussed and acknowledged by the US and Bermudian officials on the call. Colonel Burch advised that the men would have the status of refugees and be eligible for asylum. The US authorities on the call, as well as Col Burch, also advised that the men would not be able to leave the Island for a period of at least one year after arrival, but that thereafter their status would be regularised.”
Mr Willett said he attended a meeting on the afternoon of June 10 between Bermudian and US Government representatives at the Cabinet Building, with Lt Col Burch leading the discussions for Bermuda.
“The Premier attended a portion of the meeting, but it appeared to me that Col Burch led the discussions regarding the details of resettlement. The meeting resulted in an agreement between the two governments,” he said.
“During the June 10 meeting, we confirmed what the status of the men would be after reaching Bermuda. Col Burch again explained that the four men would be landed as guest workers and would have the status of refugees. My contemporaneous notes of Col Burch’s remarks on this point read, ‘expectation we will grant asylum. We will begin process to make them Bermudians well within year’.”
The men left Guantánamo Bay in the early hours of June 11 2009, and arrived in Bermuda at 6.25am local time that day.
At a press conference to announce the arrival, Dr Brown said: "These men are 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."
Since then, the men have remained on the Island and married Uighur women who they met via the internet. Their wives have been given permission by the Bermuda Government to live here. Two of the men are fathers, and two are expectant fathers.
Mr Willett is a Boston-based attorney who usually specialises in bankruptcy work. He explained that he came to work with the Uighurs “because I was very upset with what our Government was doing with Guantánamo and I volunteered for a case. I never imagined there would be a Bermuda dimension”.
Asked what he hopes will happen in future, he replied: “Colonel Burch and Dr Brown are good people who did the right thing in 2009 but we have four guys here, and their children are stateless. It’s not like there is going to be a Uighur invasion. There’s got to be a practical solution.”
He believes talks are the best option to find a solution, not “statements and court actions”.
“Everybody needs to take three deep breaths,” he recommended.