Canada rejects asylum to Guantanamo detainees
Published Thursday, August 16, 2007 9:07AM EDT
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, say newly released documents.
The material, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, indicates the Bush administration asked Canada to accept detainees of Uighur decent from China's Xinjiang region who were deemed to be no threat to national security.
The U.S. was not prepared to resettle the men in its own territory, but could not send them back to China for fear they would face persecution.
Canada _ like other countries _ 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,'' says a Foreign Affairs briefing note prepared about a meeting last May.
American officials did a hard sell on Canada. They travelled to Ottawa on three separate occasions in late 2005 to press their case with the Liberal government of the time, but to no avail. By May 2006, Washington had succeeded in persuading Albania to take five men, who now live in squalid conditions.
A week after the transfer to Albania, the Americans were back in Canada again, this time meeting with both political aides and bureaucrats from several departments and Prime Minister's Stephen Harper's office.
The sticking point seemed to be a point of principle. Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, refugees cannot make claims to enter Canada from the United States except under a few specific exceptions, such as fear they would face the death penalty in America.
Notes prepared for Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in February this year 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 potentially be Canada's relationship with China. News reports in the United States said Beijing pressured several countries not to take in the Uighurs, although there is no suggestion Canada was included in that group.
Meanwhile, Harper himself has been an outspoken critic of China's treatment of a Canadian citizen of Uighur origin, Huseyin Celil, who has been sentenced to life in prison. China has moved to crack down hard on Uighur dissidents from the Xinjiang region, an area rich in oil and gas.
Chinese agents were reported to have been allowed into Guantanamo to interview the detainees, and Chinese officials have pressed Washington to ship them to Beijing.
The 22 men were transferred to U.S. custody by Pakistani bounty hunters after 9-11. Several of the Muslim men maintain they were simply trying to escape Chinese persecution and were en route to Iran and Turkey to seek refugee status when they were picked up.
Mohamed Tohti, president of the Uighur Association of Canada, raised the issue of the Guantanamo detainees directly with Harper and his parliamentary secretary, Jason Kenney.
Tohti argues that if Canada wants to force China to negotiate on Celil's case, it would rapidly gain Beijing's attention by taking in Uighur refugees.
"The worst has already happened _ Celil has been sentenced to life in prison,'' 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 taken on the case of the Guantanamo Uighurs, pressing Canada to grant them asylum.
The organization says there is a valid concern that Albania might eventually bend to pressure from China and send the men there.