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Interview with Palau President Johnson Toribiong: Accepting Uighurs a 'Gesture of Goodwill and Humanity'

Germany said no, so the tiny island nation of Palau jumped into the void and said it would accept up to 17 Uighurs held in Guantanamo. Palau President Johnson Toribiong told SPIEGEL ONLINE that it was "spurious" to claim money was the reason.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany has spent weeks discussing whether it should accept Uighur detainees who are set to be released from Guantanamo. Now Palau has offered to take them. How did that come about?

Johnson Toribiong: I received a personal request from US President Barack Obama, through his envoy Daniel Fried, to help the US resolve this thorny political issue. Based on our long friendship with the US, we agreed to make a humanitarian gesture and offer a helping hand. We are honored and proud to be able to help the US with this issue, which has implications for the US justice system and human rights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Like President Obama, you attended law school in the United States. How did your background as an attorney inform your understanding of the Uighur issue?

Toribiong: The Uighurs are ethnic Chinese who have been struggling to create their own nation and they were picked up in Afghanistan and brought to the Guantánamo Bay detention center on the suspicion that they were members of the Taliban or terrorists. Subsequently, the appropriate authorities in the United States determined that they were not enemy combatants. The only other place they could be returned is their homeland, where they would face persecution and perhaps execution.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you determined yet how many of the Uighurs Palau will be taking?

Toribiong: If we determine every one of them is fit to relocate to Palau, we told the US we are prepared to accept all 17. But if they have some health or mental problems, or other issues that may be beyond our ability to resolve, then we have to advise the US about that. We are sending a delegation to Washington to meet with US officials on Friday to discuss technical aspects of a review we are conducting this year of the compact of free association between the United States and Palau. After that meeting, the delegation will be flown to Guantánamo to meet with the people and make evaluations and also to collect detailed reports on their physical and mental health. Each of the detainees has counsel, so we will negotiate with them as well. Our concern is about health issues and financial support.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are your concerns about financial support?

Toribiong: Initially when they come to Palau we will have to take care of them before they find employment. The US delegation said in Palau on June 4 that they will find some financial support for their relocation and transition until they become self-sufficient. The amount is not in the range of millions of dollars, as alleged by certain international media. But it will be sufficient to take care of them at the beginning.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're referring to wire-service accounts quoting two unnamed State Department officials claiming Palau's acceptance of the refugees was part of a quid pro quo arrangement in which the US agreed to pay Palau $200 million. This allegation has been widely reported. Is it true?

Toribiong: It is completely spurious. We do not link this gesture of good will and humanity to the negations over the review of the compact of free association between Palau and the US. If we did, it would undermine the quality of our humanitarian gesture. You have to understand how important we in Palau consider our relationship with the US. I have just signed an executive order declaring June 16 a national day of mourning for a Palauan young man who died in Afghanistan fighting shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in the fight against agents of terrorism. Our willingness to cooperate with the United States goes deeper than just the transfer of these people. Our emancipation from the colonial rule of Japan was paid for by the blood of young, brave Americans. So we are proud to do this to express our gratitude, and we hope the world will see Palau's reaction as offering a solution, not creating a problem.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you see the US request partly as a way to ease pressure from US relations with Germany and other allies over the same question?

Toribiong: After my meeting in Palau on June 4 with Daniel Fried, he then flew to Australia to make the same request. My understanding was that the United States was looking to explore every possibility to resolve the status of these people who in my view have become some kind of pariah. And perhaps Palau, without any enemies, can be a place where they can find freedom and perhaps a permanent place of residence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When the US was negotiating to send the prisoners to Germany, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble demanded proof that they are not dangerous, noting some had been to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Why don't you share his concerns?

Toribiong: We have a population of 20,000 and some 6,000 foreign residents. There are some 445 Muslims from Bangladesh now living in Palau and they have lived among us without any incidents. In my view, 17 ethnic Chinese will not pose any threat to Palau. They will be here unarmed and they won't have any organization. I believe they will not be a major source of concern for us. They would be like anyone else: If they violate the law, they will be put in jail.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a former Palauan ambassador to Taiwan, you're aware of the repercussions this could have on Palauan relations with mainland China? Are there indications yet of adverse reaction?

Toribiong: China has filed a protest saying that the transfer of these detainees to Palau would be illegal. My position is that under the compact of free association, the United States should step up to the plate and try to appease China or at least explain that Palau accepted these people out of regard for their human rights while their future status is negotiated and determined.

Interview conducted by Steve Kettmann

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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