Fried says that despite his new position he will continue to work to find permanent homes for the Uighur men elsewhere. "We made a deal and I plan to honor it," he wrote me in an email. "We're not done."
"We wrote letters to Dan Fried so many times and pleaded him to help us and each and every time he answered by saying that he is not forgotten about us and he is still remembering us," says Abdulahad. "So what if he remembers us? We appreciate that he did not forget about us but what good does that do for us?"
* * *
Three days after Fried returned to Washington in June 2009 with Toribiong's commitment on the Uighurs, he was on a plane with Gregory Craig, the former Obama White House counsel who helped negotiate the deal, and a small delegation from the State Department and the Pentagon, to another warm, island locale. With all eyes on Palau, a deal was quietly in the works with Bermuda. Secrecy was one of the priorities.
There was reason to worry about a leak, as anything about Guantanamo tended to spark political controversy. In October 2008, Washington, D.C. Federal District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that the Uighurs' Guantanamo detention was unconstitutional and ordered the men released into the United States. Uighur communities in Virginia and Florida were prepared to offer the men refuge. But Congress, gripped by NIMBY-ism, protested the prospect of these men living in their districts. "We had decided that slowly but surely we were going to bring some Uighurs to the United States to strengthen Dan's arguments with our friends in Europe. We had agreed to take some; they should too," Craig told me. "The Senate Republicans started accusing Obama of bringing terrorists into our neighborhoods. It was perhaps the most irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric going at the time. They should have known better. This was nothing but a political shot."
Sabin Willet, an attorney who represented four of the Uighurs, is critical also of how Obama responded to the outcry. "The heat became enormous. The White House didn't manage it at all. They didn't get out in front of it and say, 'No, no, no, these are people who have been cleared.' They were just silent."
It was with this political backdrop that Willet got a call from Craig in early June 2009, raising the prospect of Bermuda. Craig had learned that Bermuda was eager to do the new president a favor. "I said the equivalent of, ‘Yeah right, that's going to happen,'" Willet recalls.
But plans moved quickly. There was no time for Willet to visit his clients in Guantanamo so he got their consent by phone. On June 9, he was in Bermuda buying shorts for the men. The next day, he met with Fried, Craig, Bermuda's Premier Ewart Brown, and Lt. Col. David Burch, the island's Home Affairs Minister. The American delegation arrived in that morning, had an agreement by the afternoon, and left for Gitmo that night. "There had been some preliminary work so we weren't starting from scratch," Fried recalls. "That night, everyone was in a Bermudan plane headed for Guantanamo. We landed; 90 minutes later we took off, with four Uighurs."
Willet said no one slept on the flight aboard a swanky Gulfstream jet. "I had brought a bunch books from Bermuda with maps and magazines and stuff. I brought a bunch of children's books too, picture books, just to have them put in their bags for their first English training. Everyone was excited.... I remember we saw dolphins as we were coming into the airport. We came in and, of course, all the lawyers are scrambling for their blackberries to see if this has leaked. And it hasn't leaked. And we pull to the end of the runway where there's a private arrivals area for private jets and nobody else is there, it's 7 in the morning, there's no press there, nobody knows."
The four men had a few hours of privacy to settle into a little pink cottage on the water before Premier Brown held a press conference. Reaction, as predicted, was swift. Opposition politicians in Bermuda worried about the effect on tourism. Opposition politicians in the United States went full-on Fox News effect. "The American people have made clear their feelings about bringing terrorist detainees to the United States, their concerns about the ability of these people to travel and the administration's plans to ensure the proper monitoring of the terrorists should also be addressed. The administration clearly owes the nation some answers on its Guantanamo efforts," said Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
The morning after the press conference, I knocked on door of their new cliffside home, holding a photo I had taken just two weeks before in Guantanamo. On June 1, 2009, I had been part of a small group of journalists touring Camp Iguana when we were approached by one of the Uighur detainees who came up to the fence surrounding his compound. After 25 trips reporting from Guantanamo over the years, I found the tightly controlled tour numbingly routine. This was a rare unscripted moment. "Who's in charge?" the detainee asked in English, as we stood mute, abiding by the Pentagon's rules forbidding us from communicating with detainees. Other detainees emerged and knowing that we couldn't respond, staged Guantanamo's first public protest -- quickly flipping pages from an art notepad where they had written messages, as we clicked away, careful not to photograph the men's faces or any identifying features -- another Gitmo rule. "We need to freedom," read one page in broken English.
Inside the Bermudian cottage was Abdullah Abdulqadir, the man who had approached us, and Khalil Mahmut, who had been holding one of the protest signs. They held the photo I brought and posed for another -- with beaming smiles this time. We spent their first full day of freedom together, fishing, having lunch; the men were in awe of their new surroundings. "How can I express it?" Abdulqadir asked me. "This may be a small island. But it has a big heart."
Like the Uighurs in Palau, all four have married Muslim women who came to Bermuda and most have had children in the four years since. But also like their former cellmates, they have had trouble moving on. Mahmut may look like the picture of freedom today, expertly negotiating the island's narrow twisty streets on his motorcycle. He has gone to school, made friends, and has a decent construction job. But during a couple of visits with the men last year, it was clear they were frustrated by the lack of passports -- or any papers at all -- which means they haven't been able to leave the island. "Leaving the rock" is a mental necessity, say those who live in Bermuda, which from a high enough vantage post can be viewed coast to coast.
Like the men in Palau, they remain stateless -- both Britain and Bermuda refuse to grant them citizenship.
* * *
The Uighur cases required that Fried be diplomatically agile since the men could not return to China, but every country had its challenges. The most problematic was, and remains, Yemen. "The problem of Guantanamo will not be solved until the problem of Yemen is solved," says Fried. So far, it's gone nowhere. The Christmas Day plot by Abdulmutallab -- the so-called "underwear bomber" -- prompted Obama to issue the January 2010 ban on transferring any Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. The interagency task force had cleared 26 Yemenis for repatriation, subject to appropriate security measures, and another 30 to be conditionally transferred, assuming the first cases went without incident. The ban meant 56 detainees were taken off Fried's to-do list.
In the summer of 2009, before the moratorium was issued, I had traveled to Sanaa to interview former Guantanamo detainees and see what might be waiting for future returnees.