From Guantanamo to Palau

Palau Offers to Take Uighur Guantanamo Inmates

Published June 10, 2009 1:11PM (EDT)

The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau has stepped in to help in the tricky question of where 17 Guantánamo inmates of Uighur origin are to go when the camp closes.

In a statement released to the Associated Press on Wednesday, Palau President Johnson Toribiong said his country would be "honored and proud" to take the detainees as a "humanitarian gesture." Palau, he said, had "agreed to accommodate the United States of America's request" to "temporarily resettle" the detainees, "subject to periodic review."

Toribiong said he had discussed the issue with Daniel Fried, the U.S. diplomat who has been charged with the effort to resettle Guantánamo detainees, during his recent visit to Palau. Representatives of the Palau government will travel to Guantánamo to make preparations for the transfer of the inmates, Toribiong said.

With a population of around 20,800, Palau is one of the world's least-populated countries. It was a U.S. trust territory until it gained independence in 1994 and still maintains close ties to the U.S., as well as relying significantly on American aid.

Two U.S. officials told the Associated Press that the U.S. was ready to give the tiny state up to $200 million in aid, partly in exchange for accepting the inmates. However, a U.S. State Department official told the New York Times that the assistance was not in exchange for the inmate deal.

Palau says the tropical archipelago will be an attractive home for the detainees. "What they will encounter in Palau is paradise," Stuart Beck, an American lawyer who acts as Palau's ambassador to the United Nations, told the New York Times.

It is not clear how many of the 17 Uighurs -- who have been classified as not being "enemy combatants" and cleared for release -- the tiny Pacific nation will accept.

The case of the 17 Uighurs has proved a source of tension between the U.S. and Germany. The U.S. government recently asked Germany to take nine of the Uighur inmates and gave Germany a list with nine names which Germany has been considering. The issue has split the German government. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled she is prepared in principle to accept inmates, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has opposed the move.

Instead of flatly refusing to take them, Schäuble set a number of conditions for their acceptance -- including demonstrating a link to Germany and explaining why the U.S. cannot take the inmates -- which would likely never be fulfilled. Germany is worried that taking the prisoners may anger China, which sees the Uighurs -- a Muslim minority living mainly in northwestern China -- as dangerous separatists. Palau maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than China, making it less susceptible to Chinese pressure. The U.S. does not want to return the Uighurs to China for fear they may be persecuted.

Shortly before Palau's statement was released, the Uighurs had appealed to Germany to take them. "Our clients ask the German government to open Germany's doors to them, and in so doing, to inspire other European nations to give humanitarian protection to the many stateless and stranded refugees in Guantánamo," their lawyer Seema Saifee told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview. "They view Germany, which has the largest Uighur community in Europe, as an optimal solution." Saifee said her clients had no connections to the Taliban or al-Qaida.

The Palau deal would be the largest single transfer of Guantánamo inmates and is the first major agreement on detainees since U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close Guantánamo as one of his first acts in office.

Recent proposals to move some inmates to high-security prisons on the American mainland have met with opposition from members of Congress -- including members of Obama's Democratic Party -- worried that their constituents would object to having former Guantánamo inmates live in their neighborhoods.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Der Spiegel staff

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