Lawyer: Island is obliged to grant Uighurs citizenship
Bermuda is not just morally bound to give citizenship to the Uighurs — it is obligated under international law, according to lawyer Rick Woolridge.
Mr Woolridge, who practised immigration, international asylum and refugee law in the UK for seven years before returning to Bermuda, weighed in on the debate following a letter written to the Premier by the Uighurs’ lawyer Richard Horseman.
Mr Horseman last week urged Craig Cannonier to rescue the men from “limbo” 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 former 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 citizenship or British Overseas Territories citizenship, and are not eligible to apply for British passports.
Mr Woolridge said: “These gentlemen were plucked out of Afghanistan by the Americans. They were, already, by virtue of being Uighurs, persecuted people in China. By virtue of their persecution, once outside of their country, they would be eligible to apply for refugee status in whatever countries subscribe to the 1951 UN Convention on Human Rights. We can’t send them back to China because the Uighurs are a persecuted people, according to a UN report.”
Mr Woolridge added: “We are a British colony and whilst we cannot subscribe to some international conventions as a British protectorate, there cannot be a lacuna [gap in the law] where the United Kingdom and we under the United Kingdom are absolved of international obligations.
“By taking these men in, which was a great humanitarian gesture whether or not it was done correctly or wrongly we have put ourselves in a position where we are not only morally obligated but legally obligated. The 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness means simply that it’s illegal under international law for people to remain stateless, and the deprivation of the benefits of citizenship for people who cannot be returned to their countries of origin in itself constitutes persecution.”
Mr Woolridge said the UK ratified both of those conventions and also the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, which contains similar provisions with regards to employment, education and welfare and the issuance of travel documents
He added: “The question is, are the Uighurs here lawfully? And the answer to that question has to be ‘yes’, because they were invited here by the Government of the day. Did the Government of the day break the law by extending a humanitarian hand to persecuted persons? The answer to that has to be ‘no’, on moral and legal grounds.”
Amnesty International also issued a statement “as a contribution to the debate on the statelessness of individuals such as the Uighurs”.
It said: “Where an issue is emotive or gives rise to emotional responses, we have a joint responsibility to put ourselves in the shoes of the party that is seeking a level playing field and we should always remember the facts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the accepted foundation of international human rights law; adopted by the UN General Assembly in Geneva on December 10, 1948. The UDHR consists of 30 Articles and represents the universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings, and that every one of us is born free and equal in dignity and rights. Bermuda subscribes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
l Article 13, (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
l Article 14, (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
l Article 15 (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
“Putting ourselves in the shoes of others: Bermudians have always enjoyed travelling and to curtail that is a true curtailment of freedom. When offering the Uighurs asylum in Bermuda, we believe the intent was to provide them with a fresh start and grant them their basic human rights under the UDHR. The call for issuance of Bermuda status is a sore subject for many residents who have been denied the same over the years, and understandably so. Amnesty International supports a dialogue to address this inequity which should move the Country and its inhabitants to an equitable solution for all.”