That was then: The four Uyghurs, pictured in Bermuda several years ago. *File photo
That was then: The four Uyghurs, pictured in Bermuda several years ago. *File photo

“It was the right thing to do.”

This from former Premier Dr Ewart Brown last night as he reflected on his 2009 decision to fly four Uyghur detainees into Bermuda.

Earlier this week, the last three Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo Bay were transferred to Slovakia, in a move seen by some as a key step in the planned closure of the notorious prison. 

US authorities had initially suspected that a group of Uyghurs —  22 in all — were allies of the Taliban. Uyghurs are members of an ethnic Muslim minority from western China.

Eventually, the US government cleared them of any wrongdoing, but the Uyghurs remained in an extrajudicial limbo at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Dr Brown was the Premier of Bermuda at the time of the transfer. Last night he told us he is unsure whether or not the Bermuda transfer set an international precedent for other countries to follow. Echoing past comments, Dr Brown said: “It was the right thing to do.”

US officials have pointed to the most recent release of Uyghurs as evidence that the prison at Guantanamo Bay is a step closer to being closed. Time will tell. President Barack Obama pledged to close the prison during his first presidential bid in 2008. Six years later, it’s still there.

Asked if he thought Bermuda’s acceptance of the Uyghurs contributed to the prison’s potential closure, Dr Brown said: “I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think so. I’m proud of the fact we could contribute and help four prisoners. They had been incorrectly held. I’m delighted we did that.”

Four Uyghurs were transferred to Bermuda in 2009, after the US concluded the men were not  enemy combatants. Their release was delayed for months because the US could find anywhere to put them. A court decision meant they were barred from being moved to the mainland US. Authorities struggled to find homes for them, as countries from around the world were reluctant to take the detainees for fear of angering the Chinese government. Uyghurs hail from a region of China where militants have fought an insurgency against Chinese rule. 

The move to bring the four Uyghurs here sparked huge controversy here as neither Parliament nor the Governor were pre-warned. It led to public protests and a vote of no confidence in the House of Assembly, which Dr Brown survived.

Asked to reflect on the bigger picture, Brown says he has not noticed any sort of political reprisal from the Chinese government in response to the transfer. The move did not stop Chinese companies from establishing themselves on the island, he said.

“I cannot think of one negative impact of these four men coming to Bermuda,” he added.

There have, however, been political benefits, according to Dr Brown.

The US changed its approach to Bermuda’s financial and insurance sector, he said, and the previously vitriolic rhetoric about Bermuda being a tax haven was toned down.

“There was no quid pro quo with these things, but I believe when you do things to help your neighbours, it’s not unusual for them to help you.”

Richard Horseman, the attorney for the four Uyghurs who now live in Bermuda, declined to comment for this story.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.