WASHINGTON — 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.