The Obama administration is preparing to admit into the United States as many as seven Chinese Muslims who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in the first release of any of the detainees into this country, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Their release is seen as a crucial step to plans, announced by President Obama during his first week in office, to close the prison and relocate the detainees. Administration officials also believe that settling some of them in American communities will set an example, helping to persuade other nations to accept Guantanamo detainees too.
But the decision to release the Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, is not final and faces challenges from within the government, as well as likely public opposition. Among government agencies, the Homeland Security Department has registered concerns about the plan.
The move would also incense Chinese officials, who consider the Uighurs domestic terrorists and want those held at Guantanamo handed over for investigation. U.S. officials no longer consider the Chinese Muslims to be enemy combatants and fear they would be mistreated in China.
There are 17 Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) at Guantanamo. A U.S. official familiar with the discussions over their release said that as many as seven could be resettled in the U.S., possibly in two or more small groups.
Officials have not said where in the United States they might live. But many Uighur immigrants from China live in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, and advocates have urged that the detainees be resettled near people who speak their language and are familiar with their customs.
The release would mark a dramatic turn in the history of the Guantanamo Bay facility, set up in Cuba by the Bush administration as an offshore prison beyond the reach of American law. Intended to hold alleged terrorists captured during the “war on terror,” Guantanamo turned into an international symbol of U.S. overreach. At its peak, it held nearly 800 prisoners; about 250 remain.
The Uighurs are primarily from the northwestern steppes of China in a region officially called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region but known to Uighurs as Turkestan. Beijing, which controls the area, has been criticized by Washington and others for repressing Uighur religious rights and freedoms.
The Uighurs were sent to Guantanamo in 2002 after being captured in Pakistan. Before that, they had gravitated to Afghanistan, where they received firearms training at a camp apparently run by a Uighur separatist.
Some former U.S. officials have said government information indicates that the Uighurs may pose a danger if released. But other officials and human rights organizations insist they pose no threat to Americans.
“It is kind of hard to tell other countries you would like them to accept some of these guys from Guantanamo if you are not willing to accept them,” said the U.S. official, who described the internal discussions on condition of anonymity.
The release is a slap in the face to Beijing, which has requested that the Uighur prisoners be repatriated to China to stand trial for separatist activities. In their testimony before the Guantanamo tribunal, the Uighurs admitted that their purpose in going to Afghanistan was to receive military training to fight Chinese rule over Xinjiang.
“If these people are terrorists, they should be punished. If they are not terrorists, the United States should apologize to China for holding them so long and make compensation,” said Zhang Jiadong, an expert in terrorism at Fudan University’s Center for American Studies. Zhang said, however, that he did not expect the Chinese government to retaliate because it was already widely anticipated in Beijing that the United States would not return the Uighurs to China.
“The [Chinese] foreign ministry will criticize the decision, but there is nothing they can do about it. We’re used to the United States being tough with us,” Zhang said.
In captivity, the Uighurs filed suit to win their freedom. A U.S. district court in 2008 ordered their release. The decision, appealed by the Bush administration, was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Lawyers for the Uighurs appealed to the Supreme Court.
U.S. officials did not detail what supervision the Uighurs might receive once they are living on their own. But they said the Uighurs would be allowed to live freely.
In 2006, the U.S. released five Uighurs into Albania. After pressure from Beijing, which also urged other countries with Uighur communities not to accept the released detainees, Albania declined to take any more.
The Uighurs oppose the Chinese government but do not consider the U.S. government a direct enemy. Still, many of the Uighurs hold strict views of what is permitted under Islam.
Within the prison, Uighurs are not considered a grave threat and are allowed greater freedom, such as television privileges, than other detainees.
But the TV privileges underscored potential difficulties to come, according to one current and one former U.S. official. Not long after being granted access to TV, some of the Uighurs were watching a soccer game. When a woman with bare arms was shown on the screen, one of the group grabbed the television and threw it to the ground, according to the officials.
Since then, officials at Guantanamo have bolted down the TVs and shown pre-taped programs, editing out any images they thought Uighurs might find offensive.
U.S. officials said they expected any release of former Guantanamo Bay prisoners into the U.S. to generate opposition among Americans.
“It is a very emotional issue,” said the official familiar with the internal discussions. “It is all about determining the risk of placing these people into American society.”
But the Obama administration’s plans reflect the view that, despite expected opposition, the Uighurs would be the easiest detainees to relocate in the U.S.
Sabin Willett, a lawyer for some of the Uighurs in Guantanamo, argued that his clients should be set free immediately. But he said officials should make sure that the Uighurs have some measure of protection from people who might mistakenly consider them a threat.
“I fear political opponents of the Obama administration will try to sow fear and paranoia about the Uighurs,” Willett said. “Once America gets a look at our clients, all this mythology will fall away, and America will feel ashamed at the fact they were in prison so long.”
U.S. officials have supported Chinese Uighurs who have sought asylum to remain here but are opposed to elements of the Uighur movement. Earlier this week, the Treasury Department froze the assets of a Uighur leader, Abdul Haq. Haq’s Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party advocates secession from China and creation of an independent state.
In a statement, the Treasury Department focused on a threat by Haq to attack the 2008 Olympic Games in China, and cited his party’s support for Al Qaeda. There have been no allegations that the Guantanamo detainees have been affiliated with Haq.
Human rights advocates read the move against Haq as a diplomatic olive branch to Beijing to blunt the fallout from releasing the Uighurs into the U.S.
Willett, the detainees’ attorney, said that of the five former Uighur prisoners released to Albania, four are still there and one has moved to Sweden.
“They have been living peacefully for three years,” Willett said.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.