Friday, August 17, 2007

Ottawa rejected Guantanamo refugees, reports show

Canadian Press
The Globe and Mail

August 16, 2007

OTTAWA -- The Canadian government balked at several requests from Washington to provide asylum to men cleared for release from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, newly released documents say.

The material, obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation, indicates the Bush administration asked Canada to accept detainees of Uyghur descent from China's Xinjiang region who were deemed to be no threat to national security.

The United States was not prepared to resettle the men in its own territory, but could not send them back to China for fear that they would be persecuted. Canada seemed ill at ease with taking on refugees to remedy a massive public-relations headache for its southern neighbour. Today, 17 of the men are still being held and live in isolation for 22 hours a day.

"Canadian officials indicated to the U.S. delegation that the men would likely also be inadmissible under Canadian immigration law, requested the exact ground for ineligibility to enter U.S. territory," according to a Foreign Affairs briefing note prepared about a meeting last May.

U.S. officials travelled to Ottawa on three separate occasions in late 2005 to press their case with the Liberal government. By May, 2006, Washington had persuaded Albania to take five men, who now live in squalid conditions.

A week after the transfer to Albania, the Americans were back in Canada meeting with both political aides and bureaucrats from several departments and Prime Minister's Stephen Harper's office.

Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, refugees cannot make claims to enter Canada from the United States except in exceptional cases, such as fear they would face the death penalty in the United States.

Notes prepared for then-foreign-affairs-minister Peter MacKay in February suggest the government was still uncertain about whether it had the appetite for any future transfers.

"There has been no final decision by the Government of Canada as to whether to formally discourage or encourage the U.S. from making formal referrals for resettlement. ... [Foreign Affairs] will need to consider the bilateral and multilateral implications."

One of those implications could be Canada's relationship with China. News reports in the United States said Beijing urged several countries not to take the Uyghurs, although there is no suggestion Canada was in that group.

Mr. Harper has criticized China's treatment of a Canadian citizen of Uyghur origin, Huseyin Celil, who has been sentenced to life in prison. China has cracked down on Uyghur dissidents from Xinjiang, an area rich in oil and gas.

Chinese agents were allegedly allowed into Guantanamo to interview the detainees, and Chinese officials want Washington to ship them to Beijing.

The 22 men were transferred to U.S. custody by Pakistani bounty hunters after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Several of the Muslim men maintain that they were en route to Iran and Turkey to seek refugee status.

Mohamed Tohti, president of the Uyghur Association of Canada, argues that if Canada wants to force China to negotiate on Mr. Celil's case, it would rapidly gain Beijing's attention by taking in Uyghur refugees.

"The worst has already happened - Celil has been sentenced to life in prison," Mr. Tohti said in an interview. "So you have to make waves to make the Chinese government come to the table."

Amnesty International Canada has also pressed Canada to take the Guantanamo Uyghurs.