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Palau president remains calm as storm brews on island

Johnson Toribiong has no regrets in his decision to accept some Guantanamo detainees. The former defense lawyer says, 'They should be presumed innocent because no one has proven them guilty.'

June 15, 2009|John M. Glionna

Toribiong has been criticized by some islanders who say the world's troubles should remain far from their tropical home. One former Palauan president has said publicly that he wouldn't have accepted the Uighurs. As Toribiong sat in the sun within earshot of the crashing surf, he dismissed his critics as "trying to play local politics with an international issue of human rights."

He has sent a delegation to Guantanamo to interview the men, who will be placed in a halfway house here until longer-term housing and jobs can be found.

"We're considering whether we should give these men a party when they arrive, give them garlands and leis," he said.

Supporters say Toribiong, like any lawyer, is a shrewd deal-maker, picking up a valuable bargaining chip when Palau negotiates with American officials for future economic aid.

Since independence in 1994, Palau has received about $20 million in annual assistance from the United States. But that aid is set to end this year.

The U.S. is also considering assigning a full-time ambassador to Palau, a bonus for the small out-of-the-way nation about 4,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

"Palau's choice to accept these detainees has generated debate and a reaction from China that it didn't bargain for," Bezner said. "But for a tiny nation, it also achieved a huge amount of visibility."

As Toribiong deals with the complications involved with his Uighur guests, he will blow off steam the way he always has: breaking away for an afternoon of snorkeling and spear fishing.

The freshman president says he's at peace with the idea that some may never understand his decision to step into the world spotlight. "What can I say," he said. "I'm enigmatic."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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