China linked to Kevin Rudd's rebuff of George Bush's Guantanamo Bay plan

The Australian
Geoff Elliott
Washington correspondent
January 10, 2009

The Rudd Government denied a request from the Bush administration to resettle 17 Chinese locked up in Guantanamo Bay military prison after a number of warnings from Beijing not to take the former terror suspects.

Beijing heavily lobbied the federal Government against resettling the group of Muslims from northwestern China, known as Uyghurs, whom the US has cleared but refuses to send home for fear of their torture and possible execution.

The Canberra meeting - described as a mid-level diplomatic approach - took place about three weeks ago. It came as the Foreign Ministry in Beijing stressed publicly its opposition to any resettlement of the Uyghurs.

"We have said on many occasions that the 17 terrorist suspects detained at the US military base of Guantanamo are members of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is listed as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council," a spokesman said.

"The Chinese Government requires these terrorist suspects be repatriated to China. We firmly oppose any countries receiving these people."

The Rudd Government told the Bush administration last week that it would not agree to a second formal request - made by the US in December - to resettle the group in Australia, saying they did not meet Australia's stringent national security and immigration criteria.

But The Weekend Australian can reveal the decision came after Beijing made at least two approaches to the Rudd Government about the Uyghurs.

Aside from the Canberra meeting, The Weekend Australian has learned of one other meeting between Australian and Chinese diplomats, in Beijing in November, in which Beijing made the same case.

A spokeswoman for Kevin Rudd yesterday denied the rejection was linked to any lobbying from Beijing.

"Any suggestion that the Government's decision was taken in response to pressure from any other country is wrong," the spokeswoman said.

"The Rudd Government received two requests from the United States Government to consider resettling a group of detainees from Guantanamo Bay ... those requests were considered against national security and immigration criteria and were rejected."

The Uyghurs are among about 60 detainees that the Bush administration no longer regards as a threat, but these detainees have been caught in the cracks of international diplomacy, with nowhere to go. The only country to accept any Uyghurs was Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, taking five from Guantanamo in 2006 over the protests of the Chinese.

The Uyghurs have been cleared as a national security threat to the US and allies such as Australia for years.

Uyghurs belong to an autonomous region but, like Tibetans, have been subject to brutal repression.

While some, such as detainee Hozaifa Parhat, admitted weapons training with the Taliban, he said his only cause was to fight for independence for a homeland Uyghurs call Turkestan.

Sources said that while Beijing's representations fed into the Rudd Government's decision to deny the Bush administration, it was one of many factors the Government took into account and did not preclude it from looking at the Uyghurs' case again in the future.

Washington pushed hard with Canberra, Bush administration officials arguing that the Uyghurs would be a good fit in Australia because Australia boasts the largest Uyghur population of 3000 in the Western world.

While the request was denied, the Rudd Government has kept the door open and, like a number of European countries including Britain, it appears to be storing its diplomatic capital for use when Barack Obama takes office. It is expected that the new president and new secretary of state Hillary Clinton will take up the cause to resettle the Uyghurs quickly.

The head of the Uyghur community in the US, Washington-based Alim Seytoff, is hopeful with the change in administration the resettlement of the Uyghurs will be a step closer.

"It is really unfortunate that Australia has refused the request, but if they say they are looking at it on a case-by-case basis and resettle some of them, that would be great. But we understand the Chinese Government is extremely aggressive in its lobbying."

While Beijing has used forceful language, there has been no direct threat to Australia with regard to trade ties. "It doesn't work that way, although there is always that implication," said one source.

A legal representative for nine of the Uyghurs in Guantanamo, Boston-based Neil McGaraghan from the law firm Bingham McCutchen, said European parliamentarians have spoken privately of heavy-handed diplomatic approaches from the Chinese regarding the matter.

"There are threats to commercial relations - it's what we hear from our contacts in European countries," he said.

"There have been a number of prospects (to take the Uyghurs), but inevitably they fall off because of pressure from the Chinese."

The Bush administration's sudden urgency on the Uyghurs follows a district court decision in October when judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the Uyghurs to appear in his court in Washington DC, a move that edged them closer to US asylum.

The Bush administration immediately appealed. A decision could be handed down at any time from the appeals court, and rather than gamble on the court decision, the Bush administration is in an 11th hour diplomatic push to try to find the detainees a new home.