Opinion: Exiles in paradise


HAMILTON, Bermuda — The long shadow of Guantanamo Bay fell over the pink sands of this honeymoon destination just a year ago this month when Bermuda’s premier, Ewart Brown, cut a secret deal with the Obama administration that was desperate to find a home for their Uighur prisoners who were deemed no longer a threat to the United States.

It wasn’t easy to find homes for Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people of western China. The Guantanamo Uighurs were bagged in Afghanistan where they had gone, not to make trouble for the United States, but for China, which they feel is an occupier of their homeland. Clearly they couldn’t be sent back to China where they were likely to be mistreated. Few other countries would take them, and it didn’t seem politically possible to give them asylum in the United States, so the U.S. looked to remote locations such as Palau in the Pacific and Bermuda in the Atlantic.

The Bermuda deal, largely underwritten by the United States, was that four Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo would flown to Bermuda, given residence status, jobs and eventual citizenship. Call it reverse rendition. The deal was not popular in Bermuda. The last bearded gentlemen to be sent from prison to Bermuda were Boer enemy combatants who were shipped here in 1901, a handful of whom stayed on after Britain’s South African war was over.

Today the Guantanamo four are gainfully employed at the Port Royal Golf Course, have their own apartments, ride motor scooters to work and attend a local mosque. Bermuda has many more Asians today than in the past, and the Uighurs no longer stand out.

On the occasion of their one-year anniversary, Khalil Mamut wrote an “open letter to Bermuda,” published in the daily newspaper Royal Gazette. “In the name of Allah, on behalf of my brothers, I would like to thank Dr. Brown, the government and the people of Bermuda,” he wrote. “We are humbled by your hospitality…”

Not that all Bermudians are happy with the Guantanamo deal. One told me that the Uighurs had taken jobs that Bermudians might have had, especially since another golf course had been shut down and groundskeepers thrown out of work. That Brown had done the deal in secret, “in the dead of night,” without any advice or consent, is also resented. Others, however, told me that the four had clearly been innocent and that there was no harm to taking them in.

One who reportedly was not pleased, however, was the British governor of Bermuda, Richard Gozney. Bermuda is a self-governing British dependency, which means that it is free to make its own internal decisions, but defense and foreign affairs are still under British control. With a population of 64,000, Bermuda became the dwindling British Empire’s most populous colony after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

It would seem that making deals with the Americans about Guantanamo prisoners might have been Britain’s decision to make, not Bermuda’s. It is said that Sir Richard did not find out about the Uighur deal until Brown already had them on the island.

Upon the occasion of the one-year anniversary, Richard made it clear again that whatever Brown had promised about eventual citizenship was not going to happen. “The Uighurs have no entitlement to British nationality, whether British citizenship or British Overseas Territories citizenship,” the governor told the Royal Gazette.

Talks between the British and Americans about the Guantanamo four continue, but the British government is adamant that Bermuda’s Uighurs do not have a right to any kind of passports, not even refugee travel documents. The Refugee Convention of 1951 does not extend to Bermuda. The Uighurs are allowed to stay here indefinitely, but as things stand now, they cannot leave.

As for Brown’s impetuous act, it is not the first time that Britain has had trouble with an unruly colonial. But Bermuda depends so much on the United States that Brown was susceptible to wanting to please the Americans. Bermuda wants the U.S. to clean up the two bases that it leased here in World War II in the deal that Winston Churchill made with Franklin Roosevelt in exchange for American destroyers. So far America has refused to foot the bill.

So it appears that the Uighurs here have traded one island, Cuba, for another. Both have beaches and bright blue seas, but here they can spend their days in gainful employment on the golf course and not be shackled to the floor of jail cells, as they were for seven years in Guantanamo.