Four Guantanamo detainees from arid, predominantly Muslim western China were transferred to this very proper British colony Thursday, marking a bizarre new chapter in their odyssey.
Freed after being locked up seven years, the four men were given ties during their flight to the island and their lawyers gave quick lessons in how to knot them. They kept a low profile after landing and declined to talk with journalists.
They arrived just as islanders were starting to celebrate Bermuda's 400th year of settlement. But Washington's surprise announcement of the transfer set off grumbling by some islanders, and the colonial rulers in London bristled over not being told ahead of time.
Putting a cloud over the deal, Britain's government said it was studying whether to allow Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown to go ahead with his plan to take in the men as refugees. Brown said the men eventually would be permitted to pursue citizenship and would have the right to work, travel and "potentially settle elsewhere."
The four previously had been expected to join 13 other Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, that the Pacific island nation of Palau has just agreed to take in from Guantanamo over the strong objections of China, which calls them terrorists.
The 17 were among Uighurs detained in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but had been in legal limbo since American authorities decided they were not enemy combatants or a danger to the U.S. and should be let go.
Lawmakers in Congress objected to any Uighurs being released in the U.S., and few other nations showed any interest in accepting them. Albania took in a few in 2006.
China demands the Uighurs be sent home for trial, but U.S. officials have said they fear the men would be executed if they returned to China.
Brown said he had no security concerns because the men were cleared by U.S. courts. But Britain, which handles Bermuda's defense, security and foreign affairs, expressed displeasure at the deal.
The British Foreign Office complained that Bermuda's leaders failed to consult "whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility."
At the State Department, spokesman Ian Kelly said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed the transfer with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Thursday.
The U.S. is "confident that we can work these things through with the government of (Britain)," he said.
Brown insisted that accepting the Uighurs was "the right thing to do." But he indicated at a news conference that he had an uncomfortable conversation with British Gov. Richard Gozney over the transfer.
"He is seeking to further assess the ramifications of this move before allowing the government of Bermuda to fully implement this action," Brown said. "Our colonial relationship with the United Kingdom certainly gives him license to do so."
Gozney said the transfer was done without Britain's permission and raised foreign policy and security questions.
"We will now need to assess these four individuals," Gozney said. "We were only told this morning."
Strangers in a strange land
The four Uighurs, who come from a vast, arid territory that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, found themselves in a new, strange land. Hamilton, the capital, boasts pastel Victorian buildings along narrow streets that are patrolled by police in white tunics.
The former prisoners kept to themselves after arriving, releasing a brief statement.
"Growing up under communism we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring," former detainee Abdul Nasser said in the statement issued by his lawyers.
Before the plane landed, attorneys lent the Uighurs their cell phones so they could call friends and family.
"I can't describe to you in words how overjoyed these men are," lawyer Susan Manning told The Associated Press by phone. "They have enormous grins as they're talking to their families."
The Uighurs were eager to look around and explore where they would live, she said. Two of them speak some English, and they will likely teach the other two, Manning said.
They spent years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo for suspected Taliban and al-Qaida figures, and didn't even know where Bermuda was.
'What's life like there?'
As the Uighurs boarded a plane at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they peppered their attorneys with questions.
"They were just trying to understand very basic information about Bermuda," Manning said. "Where is it? What's life like there? What do people there do for a living?
Bermuda, which lies about 1,000 miles east of the U.S. coast, has the third-highest per capita income in the world, more than 50 percent higher than that of the United States. The island, with its pink-sand beaches and designer golf courses, caters to wealthy tourists and has a robust offshore financial industry.
But beneath the veneer of wealth lie economic problems, and some islanders were upset at the news that Bermuda was giving the Uighurs refuge.
Dozens unleashed their anger on the Facebook page of a local paper, The Royal Gazette.
"Our Island is struggling at this present time with shootings, gangs ... and road fatalities. These are the issues we need to focus on, not where are we going to house Guantanamo Bay Chinese Muslims which inevitably we as taxpayers will be supporting," one entry said.
Immigration Minister David Burch said he does not believe Bermudans should have been consulted about the Uighurs' resettlement.
"You couldn't make a decision of that magnitude and try to get 65,000 opinions," he told Bermuda Broadcasting Corporation radio.
Trials in U.S.
o matter unrelated to the Uighurs, congressional negotiators for the House and Senate agreed Thursday that President Barack Obama would be allowed to bring Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. for trial during the next four months.
The compromise, part of a war-funding bill, leaves until later the question of whether Guantanamo detainees tried in military trials in the U.S. would serve prison time in other nations if convicted or face imprisonment in the U.S.
The deal buys the administration time as it struggles to come up with a permanent solution that would allow Obama to fulfill his promise to close the Guantanamo prison by Jan. 22.
Also on Thursday, Guantanamo's youngest prisoner was released to his native country of Chad in Africa, the human rights group Reprieve said.
Mohammed el Gharani, who is in his early 20s, was 14 years old when he was arrested in Pakistan and accused of working for the Taliban and fighting American troops in Afghanistan. He was being held in Guantanamo despite a U.S. judge's order in January that the military release him.
Iraqi national Jawad Jabber Sadkhan also was transferred to Iraq late Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department said.