Senior aides to President Barack Obama accompanied four Uighur prisoners as they were flown from Guantanamo Bay to the British colony of Bermuda, without the UK being informed, it was revealed yesterday.
In an escalating diplomatic row over the transfer of the former terrorist suspects, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the transfer with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in what was said to be an uneasy conversation. Privately Whitehall officials accused America of treating Britain, with whom it is supposed to have a "special relationship", with barely disguised contempt.
One senior official said: "The Americans were fully aware of the foreign-policy understanding we have with Bermuda and they deliberately chose to ignore it. This is not the kind of behaviour one expects from an ally."
The prime minister of Bermuda, Ewart Brown, disclosed that talks regarding the Uighurs had been going on for a full month, with London kept in the dark. "Nothing like this happens overnight. We started these discussions the middle of May," he said. "You can understand that this matter is of such significance and why the talks had to be private and somewhat restricted." Those negotiations culminated in two White House aides, Greg Craig and Daniel Fried, flying to the island with the four prisoners on Thursday to ensure the transfer went smoothly.
The two men have key roles in the process of closing down the prison at Guantanamo Bay – an Obama election pledge. The programme to disperse the remaining inmates overseas is said to be taking place under the direction of the most senior members of the US administration.
Amid continuing recriminations over the transfer, the US State Department attempted to counter British criticism by claiming that talks had, in fact, been held with the office of the British governor in Bermuda prior to the inmates being sent to the island. An official in Washington said: "We did talk to them before the Uighurs got on the plane." This, however, was flatly denied by the governor, Sir Richard Gozney, who maintained yesterday: "We were only told this morning".
The secret deal allows the Uighurs – detained in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 but who have since been deemed not to be enemy combatants – to settle in Bermuda. This raises the prospect of them getting British citizenship and right to travel (and technically settle) in the UK. However, they would not have the right to enter America without the express permission of the US government. The Bermudan premier denied that there had been any financial sweetener from Washington, and said that Bermuda was simply "playing the Good Samaritan" in recognition of its 400-hundred-year-old friendship with the United States.
However Bermuda is heavily dependent on commerce with the US. Almost 78 per cent of the island's main income – financial services – involves American companies; 90 per cent of its tourist industry, another major source of revenue, is also dependent on the US.
The four freed men – Abdul Nasser, Huzaifa Parhat, Abdul Semet and Jalal Jalaladin – said they were glad to be in Bermuda. "Growing up under communism we always dreamed of living in peace and working in a free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring," Mr Nasser said in a statement.
The US had refused to send the men back to China because of the risk they may be tortured or executed. Beijing, which says the men are dangerous separatists, has complained that Washington has no right to hand its citizens to a third country and the Chinese government is said to be planning to request that Britain turn the men over.
Another 13 Uighurs from Guantanamo are being sent to another tiny island, Palau, in the Pacific. Its president, Johnson Toribiong, declared that accepting them was a "humanitarian gesture", although Washington is also reported to be giving his government $200m worth of aid.
The decision to resettle the men has aroused protests on both islands. In Palau, angry residents are said to have inundated the island's only newspaper to express their concern. In Bermuda, the opposition United Party condemned the " autocratic action".
It is unclear whether the Bermudan governor or the British government, can actually stop the island from giving the Uighurs citizenship.
A terse statement from the Foreign Office said: "The Bermuda government consider this to be a matter regarding their day-to-day responsibility for immigration. We have underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted the UK on whether this falls within their competence or is a foreign affairs or security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility." British diplomatic sources say that they do not foresee the Uighurs getting travel documents in the immediate future, while talks continue in Bermuda.
Who are the Uighurs and where are they going?
*The Chinese Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group. They mainly live in the western province of Xinjiang, which accounts for 16 per cent of China's land mass and is the home of the ancient city of Kashgar, once a key destination on the Silk Road.
*Beijing's plans to modernise Kashgar have left the Uighurs fearful that this will result in the destruction of their culture. The government says ancient buildings in the city are unsafe and need to be replaced, but residents see this as culture imperialism.
*The Uighurs have long protested against Chinese rule. The government in Beijing claims the Uighur separatist movement was responsible for 162 deaths and 200 attacks between 1990 and 2001.
*Four Uighurs – whose birthplace is about as far away from the ocean as it is possible to be – have been flown to Bermuda, an archipelago consisting of around 138 islands. It has a population of 65,000 and the third-highest per capita income in the world.
*Britain's oldest colony, Bermuda is a picturesque tourist destination that also plays host to a powerful offshore financial industry, as well as Hollywood stars such as Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
*On the trip to Bermuda, the Uighurs were given ties and taught how to knot them. They were also lent phones with which to contact family and friends. According to their lawyers, only two speak English and it is hoped they will teach the other two.
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