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Guantanamo detainees

March 24, 2010

The transfer of two Chinese Uighur brothers from the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to Switzerland has prompted mixed reactions from Swiss politicians, with some saying the US should sort out its own problems.

A Guantanamo Bay detainee with the Swiss flag in the background
Switzerland risks angering China by taking the men inImage: AP/DW-Fotomontage

After long negotiations with the United States, the Swiss government has finally agreed to take two Chinese nationals from the US Guantanamo Bay prison. President Obama promised to close the detention center, but finding new homes for all the detainees has turned into a complex diplomatic undertaking.

Guantanamo detention facility
Obama has vowed to shut down the controversial detention facilityImage: AP

The two Chinese brothers - both Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group - were apparently detained in Afghanistan in 2001 and held in Guantanamo for more than eight years before being freed.

The US believes they could be at risk if they are returned to China, but many American politicians have strongly opposed allowing them to stay in US territory.

Conflicting views

China has bitterly criticized Switzerland for accepting the two, saying they are a security risk. But Swiss Social Democrat member of parliament Mario Fehr said he has no problem accepting the two men.

"There have been security investigations by the US and by our government," he said. "We are told they are ready to integrate ... These two are innocent and they need somewhere to go."

Two Uighur women in the Chinese city of Urumqi
The Uighurs are a Muslim minority in ChinaImage: J. Sorges

Fehr said it would be "unthinkable" for Switzerland to bow to Chinese pressure and not accept the men. But Beijing has suggested the traditionally good ties between the two countries could be damaged by Switzerland's decision.

Not everyone in Switzerland is ready to welcome the Uighur men. Hans Fehr, a parliamentarian of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, is furious that Switzerland is offering to sort out a mess that he firmly believes should be left entirely to the United States.

"President Obama got the Nobel peace prize, he's opened up the camp, he's letting the detainees out," he said. "America has to solve this problem itself, it shouldn't be our job."

Fehr also questioned whether the two Uighurs were as safe as authorities say they are, saying they were found in a weapons camp and "are certainly not Sunday school boys."

A moral obligation

The complicated situation the Uighurs are in is difficult for many Swiss to understand: the US says the two former detainees pose no security threat, but it has also barred them from settling in America.

Instead, the two are beginning a new life in a quiet village in northwest Switzerland.

Lukas Labhardt of Amnesty International insists the two would be in danger in China, so Switzerland has a moral obligation.

"For us it's about human rights for these detainees," Labhardt said. "They've been locked up for 8 years, they had no hope, no idea what would happen to them now that Guantanamo is being shut. 600 detainees have gone home, but some difficult cases remain. In some cases, like these Uighurs, it's considered dangerous to send them to China, but they can't go to the US either. So it's quite right that we help; it's Switzerland's duty."

Author: Imogen Foulkes (acb/hf)
Editor: Ben Knight