GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — In a prison camps first, the Obama administration Tuesday dispatched members of a detainee review team here to speak directly with 17 captives from China who were swept up in the war on terror and ultimately cleared of being enemies of America.
The six-member delegation included lawyers from the Justice, State and Homeland Security departments, according to U.S. military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because only the Justice Department was allowed to officially disclose the mission.
They were to spend a minimum of one hour with each of the Uighur captives (pronounced WEE-gurs), who are part of China's Muslim minority and who risk religious persecution were they returned to their homeland.
Each was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 and handed over to U.S. forces, who interrogated them to learn about al Qaida's paramilitary training camp structure. But there connections to terrorism was never proven, and the Bush administration eventually dropped their designation as "enemy combtants.' Five Uighurs were released to Albania, but the U.S. has not been able to find countries to take the other 17.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined comment while the trip was ongoing. It was expected to last much of the week.
The tale of the Guantanamo captives from a largely unfamiliar ethnic group captured the hearts of U.S. civil liberties lawyers, who for years filed unlawful detention lawsuits on their behalf in federal courts, called habeas corpus petitions.
None was commenting on this week's meetings, citing delicate negotiations.
In October, a federal judge in Washington ordered the 17 men be allowed to enter the U.S.. Last month a federal appeals court overruled that decision, saying the judge had gone to far. But the appeals court said the men could apply for asylum with the Department of Homeland Security. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder, who is leading the Obama administration's review of Guantanamo prisoners, told reporters "the possibility exists" that some of the Uighurs could be brought to the United States.
The 1,000 or so strong American Uighur community, which mostly lives in the Washington, D.C., area, has offered to help resettle them on U.S. soil, with the help of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in Tallahassee, Fla., which has not a single known Uighur speaker, have likewise offered jobs, housing and resettlement services for three of the men.
U.S. military sources said the visit was being held in a razor-wire-ringed compound called Camp Iguana. It marked the first time that Obama administration officials with a newly created review team met directly with the detainees they have been tasked to relocate elsewhere.
Camp Iguana, on a bluff overlooking the sea, currently serves as a segregated site for Guantánamo detainees whom federal judges have ordered released under years-old habeas corpus petitions that twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court after the Bush administration's refusal to acknowledge federal court jurisdiction here.
While locked inside the smallest of Guantanamo's prison camp compounds, detainees held there have more privileges than other captives here -- more books, more movies, group meals and prayer in a plywood hut fixed up as a mosque.
On Tuesday, a total of 20 of the 240 or so Guantánamo detainees were held there -- the 17 Chinese citizens, two Algerians and a young man from Chad whose lawyer said he was captured as a teen.
Navy Adm. Patrick Walsh, deputy chief of naval operations, questioned some detainees in February about prison camps conditions -- on assignment from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to validate the detention center's compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
Boyd of the Justice Department would not say whether the team had the authority to make decisions or was providing recommendations to a Cabinet-level panel President Barack Obama established in an executive order on Jan. 22.
The president tasked Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates and others to review all Guantánamo detainee case files -- and find new sites for the war-on-terror captives, either lockups and trials on U.S. soil or resettlement or transfer elsewhere by Jan. 22, 2010.
Boyd also wouldn't say whether the team was speaking only to the Uighurs and whether a decision on where to move the men was imminent.