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Govt closes door to status for Uighurs

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Talks have been ongoing between the US, UK and Bermuda authorities since the controversial decision by then Premier Ewart Brown to bring the Uighurs to Bermuda in 2009. Ablikim Turahun, Khalil Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir and Salahidin Andulahad were part of a consignment of 17 Muslims from western China who were released by US authorities after being held unlawfully in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba as “enemy combatants”. They are only entitled to Chinese passports but had fled their country and were in Afghanistan when they were picked up by the Americans as suspected terrorists.

The UK has always insisted that the men have no entitlement to British citizenship or British Overseas Territories citizenship, and are not eligible to apply for British passports. Granting the men Bermuda status could prove a political minefield for Government — many in the community feel that status has been arbitrarily denied to many residents who have contributed to the Island and only know Bermuda as home.

Ayo Johnson talked to two former Premiers and the representatives of the UK and the US Governments, as well as Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy in an attempt to shed some more light on the issue.

Government has confirmed that it is “not minded” to pursue Bermuda status for the Uighurs and their children, but is “pursuing other options” for the stateless individuals.

Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy said yesterday that the “road to status now is very, very closed”. He added that British Overseas Territories passports could only be given to the men through naturalisation — and that was a matter for the UK.

According to former Premier Ewart Brown, the United States should be the Bermuda Government’s first port of call in efforts to end the limbo of the Uighurs. If that fails, he said, Government should change the legislation to give the men status and “move on to more important things.”

Dr Brown said he was “pleasantly surprised” at Overseas Territories Minister Mark Simmonds’ assertion, at the conclusion of a flying visit to Bermuda, that the Uighur issue was “a matter for Bermuda”.

“That has been my position all along,” he told

The Royal Gazette.

Meanwhile, a statement from Governor George Fergusson yesterday indicated that the UK has not completely washed its hands of the matter.

“As Mr Simmonds said, this is primarily a matter for the Government of Bermuda. But the position of the four men, through no fault of their own, is one which the British Government is keen to see resolved satisfactorily for all concerned,” said Mr Fergusson.

“Mr Simmonds had discussed this with the Premier; and I have had recent discussions with the Premier and the Minister for Home Affairs, exploring possible options. These discussions will continue.”

Mr Fergusson later told this newspaper that the UK had not “identified clear or specific ways to help”.

Mr Fergusson’s statement came just a day after Premier Craig Cannonier told the media that talks with the UK and the US governments were still ongoing and that he was seeking guarantees the men would be allowed to travel should they require medical attention.

Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy made Government’s position clear. “The road to status now is very, very closed,” he said. “So in other words, with the Uighurs one would have to change the legislation. And the Bermuda Government is not minded to do that. We’re exploring other options.”

On the added issue of travel documents, Mr Fahy said: “Just because you have status doesn’t get you a passport. To enable you to get a British Overseas Territory passport you have to be naturalised. Naturalisation is a matter for the UK authorities. It’s a matter for Government House.”

Dr Brown said: “Since this humanitarian step was taken at the request of the US Government, it makes sense that the Bermuda Government would reach out to the Obama administration and ask for American assistance in ending the stateless predicament of these men.”

Asked if he had been given any indication in 2009 that the US would one day be wiling to consider giving the men citizenship or residency rights there, Dr Brown said: “There was no promise from the Americans, but it was an honourable engagement. Therefore I would expect the US to help us to resolve the problem. It shouldn’t take very long.”

Sir John Swan, another former Premier, has a different view. “You cannot on the one hand say you are going to take these people and then on the other hand say ‘take them back’,” Sir John said of the US residency/citizenship option.

But, he said, the US has an “ongoing responsibility” in the matter.

“You cannot wash your hands from something you have created and say it’s no longer our problem. It may not be your physical problem but it is your moral and ethical problem,” said Sir John.

Bermuda Government should discharge its responsibilities by making every effort to normalise the men’s lives by beginning the process to grant them Bermuda status and travel documents, Sir John said.

The question of Bermuda status is solely in the hands of the Bermuda Government and UK consent is not needed, Governor Fergusson confirmed last night.

But naturalisation would be required to become an Overseas Territories citizen and obtain a passport, said Sir John.

Sir John’s view is that Bermuda should follow through on its commitments and ask the UK to naturalise the men — with the US Government playing a supporting role.

Sir John was Home Affairs Minister when Bermuda brought six Vietnamese refugees here in 1981. That situation is not comparable to the Uighur situation, he said, because the decision was preapproved by the UK and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was involved.

Asked whether Bermuda’s Government should pursue parliamentary approval to get the men Bermuda status, Dr Brown responded: “I think the first step is to talk with the United States. The outcome of those conversations might make Parliamentary action in Bermuda unnecessary.”

But he said those with Bermuda status should be able to be given passports by the local authorities.

“My understanding is there are people in Bermuda who do not have status but who are permanent residents who have Bermuda passports,” he said.

Whitehall was incensed when it emerged that then Premier Dr Brown and then Home Affairs Minister David Burch had agreed to bring the Uighurs to Bermuda in 2009 without consulting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to determine whether the decision was within Bermuda’s competence or an external affairs matter reserved for the UK.

“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,” Dr Brown told the House of Assembly in 2009.

Yesterday, he explained that “we assumed that the UK would concur with our position that this was a humanitarian act and that they would assist in any way they could to help the men find a home and be able to travel”.

And why did not Dr Brown’s administration set the wheels in motion for granting the men status?

“Let’s put this into the context of June 2009,” Dr Brown said. “The UK Government of the day obviously did not agree that it was the responsibility of the Bermuda Government. Their reaction to my decision was clear for all to see. In addition to their ministerial admonitions (of me) in London, there was a historic protest march at the Cabinet Office by people who historically hadn’t engaged in such protests.

“In that climate the issue was not whether the men could receive status but whether my administration would survive. Our energy was devoted to survival.”

US Consul General Robert Settje gave a terse response when asked the terms of reference of the talks and whether his country felt it has a moral and ethical responsibility toward the men or Bermuda now that it had handed them over.

We also asked whether the US was now in a position to offer the men US residency or citizenship rights.

“As we’ve stated in the past, the United States and the United Kingdom remain in discussion about the Uighurs in Bermuda and continue to share the goal of finding a sustainable solution to their situation,” Mr Settje said.

Former Guantanamo Bay detainees Khalil Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir, Ablikim Turahun, and Salahidin Abdulahad
Former Premier Ewart Brown (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Former Premier Ewart Brown (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Former Guantanamo Bay detainees Salahidin Abdulahad, Abdulla Abdulqadir, his son Muhammad, Ablikim Turahun, his son Ali, and Khalil Mamut. (Photo by Mark Tatem)

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Published May 03, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 02, 2013 at 11:44 pm)

Govt closes door to status for Uighurs

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