Obama finds Pacific solution for Gitmo detainees

The remote Pacific island nation of Palau has agreed to a United States request to temporarily resettle up to 17 Chinese Muslims now held at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre on Cuba.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong said the Administration of President Barack Obama made the request last week and that his country was "honoured and proud" to resettle the detainees from China's Uighur minority as a humanitarian gesture.

His archipelago, with a population of about 20,000, would accept up to 17 of the detainees subject to periodic review, Toribiong said.

The move came as a Guantanamo Bay detainee walked into a civilian US courtroom for the first time yesterday, underscoring the Obama Administration's determination to close the Cuban prison and hold trials in the US despite Republican alarms about bringing terror suspects to America.

Ahmed Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused in two American embassy bombings a decade ago, pleaded not guilty - in English - in a brief but historic federal court hearing that transported him from open-ended military detention to the civilian criminal justice system.

Obama has said keeping Ghailani from coming to the US "would prevent his trial and conviction".

Taking a drastically different stance, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio labelled yesterday's move "the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America".

Ghailani, accused of being a bomb-maker, document forger and aide to Osama bin Laden, was brought to New York to await trial in connection with al Qaeda bombings that killed 224 people - including 12 Americans - at the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.

US marshals took custody of Ghailani from his military jailers and transferred him to a federal lockup in lower Manhattan that currently holds financial swindler Bernard Madoff, and once held mob scion John "Junior" Gotti and blind terror leader Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Short and slim with a wispy goatee, Ghailani walked into the courtroom without shackles or handcuffs, wearing a blue jail smock.

Asked by the judge if he wanted her to "read this big fat indictment", he conferred with his lawyer, said it was not necessary and made his plea: "Not guilty."

Ghailani's trial will be an important test case for Obama's plan to close the detention centre at Guantanamo in seven months and bring some of the terror suspects there to trial.

The Obama Administration sought a solution for the Chinese detainees after a Pentagon determination that they were not "enemy combatants".

A federal judge last year ordered the Uighur detainees released into the US. But an appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo ever since.

Two US officials said America was prepared to give Palau up to US$200 million ($315 million) in aid in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defence and co-operation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.

The US would not send the Uighurs back to China for fear they will be tortured or executed.

Beijing says Uighur insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in China's far west and wants those held at Guantanamo returned to China.

Palau is one of a handful of mainly Pacific island, Latin American and African countries that do not recognise China and maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman Emma Reilly said that the New Zealand Government had never been approached to take prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

A former US trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the US since independence in 1994.

It relies heavily on US aid and is dependent on the US for its defence.

This article is from The New Zealand Herald