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U.S. increasingly unlikely to take any Guantanamo detainees

The Obama administration had hoped to take some Chinese Muslim detainees, known as Uighurs, to show other countries they were not dangerous. But swift backlash forced it to reverse course.

June 12, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — 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.

Deadline nears

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.


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