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June 11, 2009 3:40 PM

Four Gitmo Detainees Released in Bermuda

Posted by Francesca Heintz

After years of political and legal wrangling, a chartered flight landed at Bermuda’s only airport at dawn this morning, carrying four former Guantánamo detainees.

The touchdown marks another long-awaited milestone in the seven- year saga of a group of Chinese Muslims, from the Uighur ethnic group in northwest China, who have been held at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay since 2002.

The four Uighurs, who will participate in Bermuda’s foreign worker release program, were accompanied to the British territory by their lawyers, Bingham McCutchen partners Sabin Willett and Susan Baker Manning, who have been fighting for their release in American courts since 2005. (Thirteen more Uighurs are still being held at Guantánamo, including two Bingham clients.) A Bingham press release announcing the release of the four detainees can be found here.

The Uighurs plight, written about extensively in this story from The American Lawyer’s July 2008 issue by David Bario, has gone through a series of twists and turns. Though prosecutors declared in September that the Uighurs were no longer considered enemy combatants, the U.S. government wouldn’t release them until another country agreed to take them in.

In October, a federal judge ordered the release of the 17 Uighurs still held at Gitmo into the United States, rejecting the Bush administration’s claim that detainees could be held indefinitely without charge.

In February, a federal appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that while the Uighurs had been cleared, the courts could not force the U.S. government to take them in. (Five Uighurs had previously been released in 2006 to Albania, though the country was wary to take on more, fearing backlash from China.)

The last few months has been a scramble to find countries willing to take in the Uighurs, who would face certain punishment in their home country, which considers them terrorists and has demanded their return. The latest contender seemed to be Palau, an island 500 miles east of the Philippines, which announced yesterday that it would take all 17 detainees. Australia is also reviewing the request to take them in.

George Clarke III, a partner at Miller & Chevalier who represents two of the 13 Uighurs still at Gitmo, says he can’t give specifics about the discussions with Bermuda, but that it had been mentioned in negotiations with senior administration officials. The fate of the remaining Uighur detainees has yet to be decided.

“It’s a great development that Bermuda and Palau have stepped forward,” Clarke says. “It would be nice if the U.S. and other European countries would as well.”

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