Prospect of Guantanamo prisoners in US stokes fear

President Barack Obama is searching around the world for new homes for Guantanamo Bay detainees. He is running into trouble in his own backyard.

world Updated: May 19, 2009 15:58 IST

President Barack Obama is searching around the world for new homes for Guantanamo Bay detainees. He is running into trouble in his own backyard.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican lawmaker who represents some of the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, is fighting Obama's effort to resettle 17 Uighurs, Muslims from western China, in or near his district. That resistance comes despite Wolf's history of supporting Uighurs.

Wolf's efforts, and those of other lawmakers, could derail Obama's attempts to resettle detainees in other nations, especially those in Europe, which have cheered Obama's plans to close Guantanamo Bay next year.

Obama hopes Europeans and other allies will back their words of support with acceptance of some prisoners. Last week, a Guantanamo detainee, Lakhdar Boumediene, was released to live in France, which accepted the Algerian as a gesture to the Obama administration. U.S. officials say they will be hard-pressed to persuade other countries to accept released detainees when the United States has not done so. Attorney General Eric Holder said as much last month, telling an audience in Berlin, Germany, that to close Guantanamo, "We must all make sacrifices, and we must all be willing to make unpopular choices."

So far, that is not happening. The House of Representatives passed a war spending bill last week that forbids releasing Guantanamo detainees in the United States. The bill now goes to the Senate.

On Sunday, Virginia's senior senator, Democrat Jim Webb, added his name to those opposed to relocating the Uighurs in Virginia, home to the U.S.' largest Uighur community. Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky demanded a vote on keeping Guantanamo detainees out of the United States, saying Americans "don't want these men in their neighborhoods."

Wolf is a longtime advocate of the Uighurs and fierce critic of China. In an interview, he said he remains supportive of Uighurs, but "a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist." He noted the path that landed these particular Uighur detainees in Afghanistan, and expressed concerns that they might have become "radicalized" in Guantanamo.

"This could be a deal stopper," said Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who published recommendations last year on how to close Guantanamo. "I don't see how we close Guantanamo if Congress passes legislation saying we can't take in detainees."

In a May 1 letter to Obama, Wolf asked for declassification of all intelligence surrounding the Uighurs' capture, detention and the administration's assessment of the threat they may pose. "The American people deserve to have all the facts about these individuals before they should be expected to tolerate their presence in our communities," Wolf wrote.

Wolf is scheduled to get a briefing Tuesday afternoon from the FBI. Jason Pinney, a lawyer for the detainees, said that his clients "have expressed concern that some Americans will mistake them for terrorists because they have been held at Guantanamo." Nury Turkel, a lawyer in Washington and past president of the Uyghur American Association, said the community feels betrayed by Wolf.

"It's unclear why he is turning his back against us now," Turkel said. The Uighur detainees were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001. China has demanded their extradition, saying they are part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group that demands separation from China. The United States has refused to return them on grounds that they might be mistreated.

"The best indication we have so far as we look through their files is that they went to Afghanistan, not to take up arms against the United States _ and this is not to excuse that _ but to oppose the Chinese government," Holder said during a congressional hearing last week.

The men are not considered enemy combatants, and last year, a federal judge ordered their release, but an appeals court ruling overturned the decision. The Uighur-American community argues that the men are neither terrorists nor threats, and Uighur families have volunteered to take them in.

"They got to Afghanistan in the wrong time, wrong place," said Ilshat Hassan, a soft-spoken Uighur who recently signed a lease on an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, where he plans to live with two detainees. "I will take them because they are my countrymen. They are innocent."

Another area congressman, Democrat Jim Moran, said it makes sense to settle the men in Uighur communities. He said he does have concerns about their coming to Virginia, but "I also have a concern that we don't have any better plan."

"To just detain somebody to rot in prison for the rest of their lives, who is in there because they oppose the policies of a nation that we also oppose, is not a sufficient plan of action," Moran said.

First Published: May 19, 2009 15:55 IST