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Five years on and Uighurs remain in limbo

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Five years after they were secretly smuggled into Bermuda a group of Uighurs are still no closer to being able to leave.

On the anniversary of their arrival from Guantánamo Bay, the four former detainees have no passports, and the governments of the US, UK, and Bermuda do not appear inclined to grant them any.

Premier Michael Dunkley, who described the four as ‘“pawns of other people” in 2010, declined to comment yesterday, while Governor George Fergusson, and Bob Settje, the US Consul General, said their respective governments were discussing the situation.

The UK is on record as saying it is “a matter for the Bermuda Government”, and Mr Fergusson said little yesterday to suggest that situation has changed.

“It remains our hope that this long-standing issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, but it is difficult to say how long it might take,” Governor Fergusson said. “If the Uighurs and their families decide to apply for BOTC naturalisation, their applications will be assessed against the eligibility criteria set out in the British Nationality Act 1981.

“While it is correct that five years' residence in a UK Overseas Territory is one of the criteria for naturalisation as a British Overseas Territories Citizen, there are a number of other qualifying criteria.

“These include being of good character, having a working knowledge of the English language and having an intention to make a home in the relevant Overseas Territory. We remain in contact with the US authorities over the Uighurs and their families.”

Khalil Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir, Ablikim Turahun and Salahidin Abdulahad, who are originally from Chinese Turkestan, were brought to Bermuda from Cuba after then Premier Dr Ewart Brown and former National Security Minister David Burch struck the deal with the US, without the UK's knowledge.

On the day of their arrival, Dr Brown told a stunned press conference: “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.”

Yesterday, the man at the centre of the controversial decision to bring the four men, who now all have families, to the Island, passed the buck firmly on to the British Government.

Dr Brown said: “I don't know why the UK Government has not fixed this situation. Maybe they are waiting for a formal request from the Bermuda Government.

“I am proud of the fact that these men have established a track record of hard work and dedication to their families.”

The Uighurs' lawyer Richard Horseman indicated last year that they would apply for naturalisation as British Overseas citizens on the five-year anniversary of their arrival, while Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy said that the road to them being granted Bermudian status was “very, very closed”.

Senator Fahy did not answer questions yesterday about the men, but a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Home Affairs said: “The Uighurs were given reside and seek status under the previous Government. That right has continued.

“We remain committed to finding a solution to the immigration issues facing the men and their families.”

Mr Horseman said there was “not much to say at the moment” on his clients' plans for seeking naturalisation. He said last year: “We'll give it a shot, when it reaches five years, to see whether they can be naturalised as British Overseas citizens. We'll have to see whether Britain will be prepared to do that. The only solution is going to come from Britain.”

Former Guantanamo Bay detainees Ablikim Turahun, Salahidin Abdulahad, Abdulla Abdulqadir and Khalil Mamut
Former Guantanamo Bay detainees Salahidin Abdulahad, Abdulla Abdulqadir, his son Muhammad, Ablikim Turahun, his son Ali, and Khalil Mamut. (Photo by Mark Tatem)
<p>Five years in quotes</p>

Premier Ewart Brown on June 11, 2009: “The Government of Bermuda has agreed to grant asylum to four refugees previously detained at Guantánamo Bay. 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.

“The nature of their arrest and detention is such that they are essentially stateless, without documentation and without the benefit of a fresh start will be condemned to languish as innocent men in some form of detention even after the closure of Guantánamo Bay.”

Governor Sir Richard Gozney on June 12, 2009: “We’re quite clear that we should have been notified and we should have considered that we should have looked at this together.

“We think that this move covers areas of foreign policy and security issues for which the UK has responsibility in.

“If the Bermuda Government disagrees with that then it should have at least asked us whether they were right to regard this as a domestic matter. But they didn’t even discuss it which was not right. We will try and work with the issues together.”

Charles Stimson, former chair of the Pentagon’s Joint Detainee Coordinating Committee, on June 17, 2009: “A cynical person might say a country did that because they wanted to be on good terms with the United States and expected something in return.

“I think it would be unwise to look at it that way.”

Uighur Khalil Mamut on December 10, 2009: “On June 10, 2002, I was taken to Guantánamo Bay. On June 10, 2009, I was released. We stayed there for seven years and now I’m talking to you. Everything is cool. We are free. We are talking to you.”

Shadow Immigration Minister Michael Dunkley on October 14, 2010, when Government helped the Uighurs find work with a private company: “We wish the Uighurs well. They are not at fault here. They are pawns of other people and cannot be held responsible for their situation. But we need to make sure ground rules are in place that are fair to all residents, no exceptions.”

Sabin Willett, the Uighurs’ lawyer in the US, on April 27, 2011: “I would say the British have not been helpful. I know that there continues to be a frustration with their main goal in life, which is to get married and have families. It’s hard to move forward with these difficulties in terms of refugee status. I wish the English government would recognise that the best way for people to be happy and assimilated in a society is to be married and have children. Maybe this will work out.”

Governor George Fergusson on May 2, 2013: “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.”

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Published June 11, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated June 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm)

Five years on and Uighurs remain in limbo

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