Leaked Cable Highlights Issue of Payment for Pacific Island Sanctuary for Gitmo’s Uighurs

By Patrick Goodenough | December 1, 2010 | 5:15 AM EST

The sparsely-populated Pacific archipelago of Palau is a popular scuba diving and tourist destination. (Photo: Palau Visitors Authority)

(CNSNews.com) – Secret diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to get a small Pacific nation to take a group of Uighurs detained at Guantanamo Bay in return for a $3 million “incentive package.”

The revelation serves as a reminder that the Obama administration last year succeeded in getting another Pacific island to accept some of them.

Kiribati (pop. 99,000) did not accept the Bush administration’s proposal to provide a haven for the Uighurs, but tiny Palau (pop. 20,000) last year agreed to accept 13 of the group. In the end, six accepted the invitation and arrived on the island last November.

Palau’s government in the summer of 2009 denied reports that the Obama administration had offered a payoff of $200 million in development aid, although a Palauan newspaper editor told CNSNews at the time that the former U.S. dependency was hardly in a position to turn down the request.

Palau is heavily reliant on American aid, and the proposal to house the Uighurs came shortly before the renegotiation of a “Compact of Free Association,” which mandates direct U.S. financial assistance to Palau.

In an op-ed published by the New York Times on June 19, 2009, Palau’s ambassador to the United Nations, Stuart Beck, denied the $200 million claim and said that “no one has even hinted at linking the [Compact] deal to Palau’s acceptance of the Uighurs.”

“The United States simply offered to pay relocation costs for the Uighurs of less than $90,000 per person to cover transportation, food, housing and medical help until the men can get oriented and get jobs,” Beck wrote.

Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims whose traditional homeland came under communist Chinese rule in 1949 and now falls into western China’s Xinjiang province.

Twenty-two Uighurs were among hundreds of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. military during and following the U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11.

The U.S. later determined that the Uighurs were not “enemy combatants,” and fearing that they would face torture or execution if returned to China, looked for a third country willing to take them. Five were accepted by Albania in 2006.

In 2008 a federal court ordered that the remaining Uighurs be released into the U.S., but an appeals court halted the order after Justice Department attorneys argued that the lower court ruling “threatens serious harm to the interests of the United States and its citizens by mandating that the government release in the nation’s capital 17 individuals who engaged in weapons training at a military training camp.”

China’s foreign ministry said at the time that the “Chinese terrorists” should be handed over to deal with in accordance with Chinese law.

Some of the countries approached by the U.S. were reluctant to anger China by taking in the Uighurs.

In 2003 Kiribati, which comprises 33 atolls scattered across a vast area of the Western Pacific, established diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a step that meant the end of its relationship with China. (Beijing regards Taiwan as a rebel province that will not have ties with any government that recognizes Taipei.)

Having no relationship with China to jeopardize, Kiribati was therefore seen as a potential candidate to provide a sanctuary for the Uighurs. Why it turned down the U.S. proposal is unclear.

Like Kiribati, Palau is one of Taiwan’s small group of allies. President Obama pledged on taking office to close Guantanamo Bay by the end of 2009, and Palau was among several countries approached by administration with a request to take the Uighurs.

The six Uighurs who arrived there late last year were enrolled in a college to study English language and local history, according to Palauan media reports.

A report in the Palau Horizon newspaper last May said the resettlement fund provided by the U.S. had been directed by the Palauan government for accommodation in a rental apartment, schooling and medical costs

The paper reported that the six have appealed to President Johnson Toribiong to help them find a permanent place elsewhere, possibly in Australia, which is home to a sizeable Uighur community.

Palau has no Uighur community and only a few Muslims, mostly Bangladeshi expatriates. In a 2005 census, around 80 percent of its people identified themselves as Catholic and Protestant Christians.

Of the remaining Uighurs, four went to Bermuda in mid-2009, Switzerland accepted two last March, and five remain in Guantanamo Bay.

At least some of the 22 detained Uighurs reportedly received training by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group designated by the U.S. in 2002 under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.

While not officially designated a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. government, ETIM has been described in State Department terrorism reports as a group “linked to al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement” and one whose members had fought alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow