The Obama administration is in talks with the South Pacific island nation of Palau to relocate some or all of 17 Uighurs — native Chinese Muslims — held at Guantanamo Bay, senior administration officials told CNN Tuesday.
Last week, Daniel Fried, the Obama administration’s special envoy to oversee the closure of Guantanamo, visited Palau and Australia as part of a tour of the Pacific region. Although the State Department confirmed the visit, it offered no details. Australia previously rejected U.S. appeals to accept some of the Uighurs, but its foreign minister said last month it may reconsider its decision. Officials said Fried, who has been negotiating with various countries to accept Guantanamo detainees as part of President Obama’s policy to close the facility, was discussing the relocation of the Uighurs with the Palauan government. Once a U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, the tiny island nation of Palau has maintained close ties with the United States since it declared independence in 1994 and signed a Free Compact of Association with Washington. Palau still depends on the United States for its defense and relies heavily on U.S. aid. Additionally, native-born Palauans are allowed to enter the United States without a visa.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently wrote a letter to the Palauan government thanking them for considering to resettle the Uighurs, officials said. “They are thinking about it and haven’t made a final decision, but we are talking seriously about it,” one senior official said. The 17 Uighurs — members of an ethnic Muslim group from western China — are accused of receiving weapons and military training in Afghanistan. Some of the prisoners have been cleared for release since 2003, but the United States will not send them back to their homeland because of concern they would be tortured by Chinese authorities.
The men have been in legal limbo as a federal court has ordered them released, but an appeals court halted the order. The Justice Department had no comment Tuesday on the fate of the Uighurs. Albania accepted five Uighur prisoners in 2006, but has refused to allow any more in the country. Human rights activists say that European nation is concerned about economic and diplomatic retaliation from China. The Chinese government has said no returned Uighurs would be tortured, but warned other countries in January against taking the men.