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Life After Guantanamo: Why the Media's Happy-Ending Narrative Is Totally Bankrupt

The transfer of four Uighur prisoners to Bermuda has been treated like a happy human-interest story, but the truth is far darker.

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Locked Up in Limbo

The sudden release of the four men was not an act of political altruism. More like desperation.

The Obama administration has spent much of the past few weeks stepping up talks with foreign governments, trying to persuade them to take in prisoners from Guantanamo. In the past week alone, press reports have revealed that Italy, Spain, and Hungary are stepping up to take a handful of prisoners.

But the Uighurs have posed a particularly complicated challenge since the days of the Bush administration. As a persecuted Muslim minority from China's western Xinjiang province, they have been denied asylum by virtually every nation the U.S. has approached to take them in, due to an unwillingness to anger the Chinese government.

(How the Uighurs ended up at Guantanamo in the first place is a winding, rather unbelievable story.) Handed over to the U.S. military in 2002 by Pakistani bounty hunters, they have been accused of training with al-Qaida in order to take up arms against China. Not true, the Uighurs have insisted.

In a 2006 op-ed published by the New York Times, former Guantanamo prisoner Abu Bakker Qassim wrote: "I was locked up and mistreated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time during America's war in Afghanistan. Like hundreds of Guantánamo detainees, I was never a terrorist or a soldier. I was never even on a battlefield. Pakistani bounty hunters sold me and 17 other Uighurs to the United States military like animals for $5,000 a head. The Americans made a terrible mistake."

Resettling the Uighurs in the United States has proved to be a political impossibility, nevertheless, thanks to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. When a community in northern Virginia that is home to a Uighur immigrant population volunteered to take them in, local lawmakers protested. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.,who has been a critic of China's record against the Uighurs, nevertheless told Fox News that "a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist." Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., took the same line, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos in May, "I don't believe they should come to the United States."

"Not to the United States and not Virginia," Stephanopoulos said.

"No, I don't believe so," said Webb.

In the end, the story of how Bermuda came to house the four Uighur men is itself something of a mystery -- and at the center of a diplomatic flap between the U.S. and Britain. (Bermuda is a British territory.) British authorities claim that they were not told the "secret deal" had been struck with the premier of Bermuda, Ewart Brown.

"The Americans were fully aware of the foreign policy understanding we have with Bermuda, and they deliberately chose to ignore it," one senior British official said. "This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally."

Someone might tell the U.S. and the U.K. to set their imperial egos aside. The real injustice is that the innocent Uighurs remained imprisoned for years after they were no longer deemed to be guilty of anything.

"When we get a little removed and get some perspective on this, we all should feel a large sense of shame," Guantanamo attorney Sabin Willett said. "What makes us so pathetic that we can't resolve our own problems and have to send them to islands? Shame on us."

Willett, the Boston-based lawyer who represented the resettled Uighurs, recently shared the details leading up to his clients' release in an interview with the American Lawyer. He only discovered that the U.S. government had decided to send his clients to Bermuda at the end of last month. Before Willett told his clients, however, he took "some precautionary steps."