The Swiss government rebuffed Chinese protests Wednesday and agreed to give sanctuary to two brothers from China's Muslim Uighur minority who had been cleared for release from Guantanamo, but feared persecution if they went home.
The announcement represented a breakthrough for Arkin Mahnut, 45, and his brother Bahtiar, 32, now held at Guantanamo's Camp Iguana, the chain-link-fence enclosed compound reserved for prisoners who've been ordered released.
Bahtiar had been offered sanctuary in Palau but refused to leave Guantanamo without Arkin, who reportedly has developed a mental illness during his eight years in U.S. detention. While a dozen Uighurs recently have been given sanctuary elsewhere, no country was willing to take Arkin.
Switzerland, which had earlier taken in an Uzbek man from Guantanamo, said in a statement it was doing its part to "contribute to the closing of the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center, which it had criticized as being contrary to international laws."
"There is no evidence that the three might have had or have any contact with terrorist groups," it added. "The USA neither charged them with any crime nor sentenced them and in 2005 declared they could be accepted by other countries."
The story of the Guantanamo Uighurs is one of the most complex of the detention center's existence. Captured in Afghanistan in 2001, the Uighurs originally numbered 22. China originally demanded that they all be sent back to China, but the Uighurs said they would be persecuted there and the Bush administration agreed.
After concluding that the Uighurs did not pose a terrorist threat to the United States, the Bush administration sent five to Albania in 2006. But the other 17 Uighurs lanquished in Guantanamo as the Bush State Department searched for another country to take them.
According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, civilian lawyers contacted about 100 nations to find the Uighurs new homes but got no takers — "presumably out of fear of angering China," the CCR said.
In October 2008, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered that the 17 Uighurs be released into the United States, if the State Department could not find the homes. The order was stayed by an appeals court, and is now set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But in the months after, the State Department scrambled to find homes for the Uighurs. Four were given asylum in Bermuda. Six Uighurs were given asylum by the Pacific island nation of Palau, and five who remain at Guantanamo may still have the option to go there.
No nation, however, was willing to take Arkin Mahnut and his brother would not leave without him until Wednesday.
Swiss Minister of Justice Evelyn Widmer-Schlumpf said the decision to take the brothers "was guided by humanitarian principles and should not be interpreted as giving preference to one country over another." Switzerland said it would issue the men migration permits and they had agreed to honor Swiss values, try to earn a living and learn the local language. Switzerland has four official languages.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman, said the U.S. Justice Department was "grateful to the Swiss Government and the Cantons of Jura and Geneva for assisting our efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The United States will continue to work closely with Switzerland regarding this matter."