WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is preparing to free into the United States Chinese Muslims imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the first release of any of the detainees into this country, according to current and U.S. former officials.
The release is seen as a crucial step in plans announced by President Barack Obama during his first week in office to close the prison and relocate the detainees. Administration officials also consider settling some of the detainees in American communities vital as an example for the world.
However, the decision to release the Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, is not final and faces challenges within the government, as well as likely public opposition.
As well, the move would incense Chinese officials, who consider the Uighurs domestic terrorists and want those held at Guantanamo handed over for investigation. U.S. officials no longer consider the Chinese Muslims enemy combatants and fear they would be mistreated in China.
There are 17 Uighurs at Guantanamo. A U.S. official familiar with the discussions over their release said as many as seven could be resettled in the U.S.
Officials have not said where in the United States they might live. However, many Uighur immigrants from China live in Washington’s Virginia suburbs.
The Uighurs are primarily from the northwestern steppes of China in a region officially called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region but known to Uighurs as Turkestan. Beijing, which controls the area, has been criticized for repressing religious rights and freedom.
The Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay were sent there in 2002 after being captured in Pakistan. Before that, they gravitated to Afghanistan, where they received firearms training at a camp apparently run by a Uighur separatist.
Some former U.S. officials have said government information indicates the Uighurs may pose a danger. But other officials and human rights organizations insist they pose no threat to Americans. “It is kind of hard to tell other countries you would like them to accept some of these guys from Guantanamo if you are not willing to accept them,” said a U.S. official, who described the discussions on condition of anonymity.