The Obama administration has virtually abandoned plans to resettle in the United States some detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said, a recognition that the task had become politically impossible because of congressional opposition.
The shift came even as the administration announced Thursday that it had transferred six detainees from the prison, including four Chinese Muslims sent to Bermuda, as it tries to meet a one-year deadline for shutting down the controversial facility.
The administration had hoped to move some of the Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, to the United States as a signal to other countries that they were not dangerous. But the swift backlash forced the administration to reverse course.
“For now,” a senior administration official acknowledged, releasing some Uighurs in the U.S. is “not doable.”
The administration now is scrambling to find countries willing to accept the Uighurs, who have been held since 2002 and were ordered released by a federal judge last year.
Underscoring the importance of the transfer, White House Counsel Gregory Craig and a top American diplomat, Daniel Fried, flew to Guantanamo and accompanied the Uighurs as they boarded a plane for Bermuda.
But the transfer set off diplomatic objections, both unexpected and expected. America’s close ally Britain expressed displeasure over the transfer to Bermuda, a British overseas territory. Less surprising was the reaction of China, whose officials reiterated that they wanted the Uighurs repatriated to stand trial for separatist activities.
Administration officials played down the talk of diplomatic backlash, and said moving the Uighurs was an important step toward shutting down Guantanamo.
“We want to close Guantanamo, not just talk about wanting to close it,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The U.S. announced Thursday that besides the Uighurs, it also had transferred two other detainees. On Wednesday, the U.S. transferred Iraqi detainee Jawad Jabber Sadkhan to his home country, and on Thursday sent Mohammad Gharani to his home nation of Chad.
Earlier this week, the Pacific island nation of Palau said it also had agreed to take some Uighurs; and another detainee, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was transferred to stand trial in federal court in New York.
The flurry is a sign that the administration is painfully aware of its promise to close Guantanamo’s prison within a year. With only seven months to go, the U.S. has about 232 remaining detainees to either transfer to other countries, charge in federal courts or military commissions, or consider holding without trial.
The promise to close the prison came in the first week of the Obama administration. But since then the White House has struggled to maintain the political initiative, and seemed caught unawares when Congress, in a series of votes, tried to ban former Guantanamo detainees from being brought to the United States.
Both the Senate and the House had voted to strip money for the closure of Guantanamo from a supplemental spending bill, but differences in their measures’ language forced the two bodies to negotiate. On Thursday night, House and Senate negotiators struck a deal that would prohibit the administration from freeing any detainees onto U.S. soil until Sept. 30. But the compromise would allow the administration to transfer to the U.S. any detainees it intends to try.
The deal to transfer the four Uighurs to Bermuda had been discussed for some weeks, but a final agreement was not struck until Wednesday night, the senior administration official said.
The official said the British were notified immediately afterward. But the British Foreign Office and Sir Richard Gozney, the British-appointed governor of Bermuda, said that Bermuda’s government should have consulted with London because taking the Uighurs had security and foreign policy ramifications. Although the island nation is largely self-governing, Britain controls its security and foreign policy.
British officials were frustrated by the lack of consultation by the U.S., and complained that they were informed of the transfer just hours before it occurred. They made those concerns clear Thursday in a call with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But U.S. administration officials said the British officials’ displeasure was more with Bermuda than with the United States. One official noted that the lack of notice may allow British diplomats to tell China they had no part in the deal.
China exerted diplomatic pressure on Albanian officials after they agreed to take five Uighurs in 2006, and since then, finding countries to take the remaining Uighurs has proved difficult.
The Uighurs belong to the Turkic Muslim minority that lives in the Xinjiang province of far western China. The Uighurs say they are repressed by the Chinese government. China considers the Uighurs a violent separatist movement.
The Uighurs held at Guantanamo were captured in Pakistan in 2002. They had received firearms training in Afghanistan, but fled after the U.S. began its military campaign there in 2001.
Administration officials praised Bermuda for agreeing to take the Uighurs, as did attorneys for the four men.
“Bermuda just stepped up and did it, God bless them,” said Sabin Willett, a lawyer for the four men. “They have put the bigger countries to shame.”
The four Uighurs will reside in Bermuda under a guest-worker permit. Although they will be free to travel around Bermuda, they will not be able to leave the country until they are awarded Bermudan passports, which should occur in about a year, Willett said.
Even after they have passports, the Uighurs will not be able to enter the U.S. without the permission of the American government, U.S. officials said.
Miffed about reports that the U.S. was prepared to offer $200 million in aid to Palau for taking in detainees, the senior official said the U.S. would provide Bermuda with only about $100,000 to help defray the costs of taking in the Uighurs.
In a statement released by his attorneys, one of the four detainees said he was pleased with the resolution.
“Growing up under communism, we always dreamed of living in peace and working in a free society like this one,” Abdul Nasser said.
Thirteen Uighurs remain at Guantanamo. Though Palau has agreed to take some of them, it is unclear exactly how many Uighurs will go there or when they might arrive.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong said he had never even heard of Uighurs when, on June 2, he was asked by Fried, an assistant secretary of State, if Palau might be willing to host a group.
A formal request came two days later from Clinton, Toribiong said.
“The very fact that the invitation came from the United States meant that we must take the request seriously and if there is no good reason to reject it, we should accept it,” he said, adding that he had not heard back from the United States.
OK’d for transfer
More than 50 Guantanamo detainees including the remaining Uighurs have been approved for transfer.
The Obama administration has transferred one detainee to Britain and one to France.
European countries have said for months that they are willing to help Obama close Guantanamo by taking prisoners, but they have signaled that they want Washington to take the first step by accepting some detainees in the United States.
David Glazier, a Loyola Law School professor who has studied the judicial and security issues surrounding the proposed closing of Guantanamo, said the transfer of Uighurs to Bermuda and potential resettlements to Palau are intended to demonstrate to U.S. allies that they can safely take in the former prisoners.
“It’s helpful in that once some countries have taken people from Guantanamo, it becomes that much easier for other countries to make the decision to do the same thing,” Glazier said.
Times staff writers Kate Linthicum and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Peter Wallsten in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.