Tue, Jun 16, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Freed Uighurs relishing life in Bermuda

AP , HAMILTON

Former Guantanamo detainee Salahidin Abdulahat takes a swim in the Atlantic Ocean near Hamilton, Bermuda, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

The four men in short-sleeve shirts looked like ordinary tourists, enjoying a Sunday lunch and butter pecan ice cream afterward as they observed the sparkling waters surrounding the Atlantic resort island.

But they are Uighurs, Muslims from the vast stretches of western China, an arid and rugged land that is a far cry from Bermuda’s sandy beaches and quaint narrow streets lined with pastel Victorian-era buildings.

They once were terrorism suspects, but even after Washington determined the men weren’t a threat to the US, they were kept at the Guantanamo prison for years because no nation would take them — until a few days ago, when Bermuda agreed to let them in as refugees.

“When we didn’t have any country to accept us, when everybody was afraid of us ... Bermuda had the courage and was brave enough to accept us,” said Abdulla Abdulgadir, who at 30 is the youngest of the four men who relished their first weekend of freedom in seven years.

Abdulgadir eagerly embraced his new island home.

“We are not moving anywhere,” he said.

He and his companions have traded drab prison jumpsuits for comfortable cotton pants and knit shirts, and razor wire-encircled jail compounds for beach cottages. They hope to quickly find jobs in Bermuda — one of the world’s wealthiest places because of its financial and insurance sector — and eventually start families.

The four Uighurs also have immediate priorities, such as learning to drive, scuba dive and bowl, said Glenn Brangman, a former military official who is helping reintroduce them to the world outside prison.

“I told them one step at a time,” Brangman said. “They’re beginning to live all over again.”

For these four, the arrival in Bermuda appears to be the end of a difficult journey. Thirteen other Uighurs at Guantanamo are hoping to move to the Pacific island nation of Palau.

All of them were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan as suspected allies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but the men claimed they had only fled oppression by China and were never enemies of the US.

“We only have one enemy, and that’s the Chinese,” one of the men, Ablikim Turahun, told a military tribunal in 2004. “They have been torturing us and killing us all: old, young, men, women, little children and unborn children.”

US officials eventually declared the Uighurs innocent of any wrongdoing and authorized their release, but they couldn’t be sent back to China because US law forbids deporting someone to a country where they are likely to face torture or persecution.

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