TORONTO: Three Chinese Muslim detainees cleared for release from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay have applied for resettlement in Canada, lawyers for the men and a group sponsoring them said Tuesday.
The men are among 17 ethnic Uighurs at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. The U.S. has cleared them for release but fears they could be mistreated or even tortured if they are turned over to China, which says they are terrorists who belong to an outlawed separatist group.
Two of the inmates applied last week and one applied last October, said Mehmet Tohti, a member of the Uighur Canadian Association, a nonprofit cultural organization that is part of the group sponsoring the men.
Canada has refused several requests from Washington in the past to provide asylum for men cleared for release from Guantanamo. Tohti said there has been no government response so far to the Uighurs' request.
Danielle Norris, a spokeswoman for Canada's Citizenship and Immigration government agency, said without the consent of the men she could not speak to their specific cases because of privacy laws.
But Norris said in an e-mail that the department's top priority is protecting the safety and security of Canadians and that a permanent resident or foreign national won't be admitted if there is reason to believe they have "engaged or will engage in acts of terrorism."
Canada — like other countries — has been reluctant to take on Guantanamo refugees.
On Tuesday, the European Union justice chief said European countries that agree to take in Guantanamo detainees may be in line for financial aid. The major parties in the European Parliament are urging EU nations to accept some 45 inmates from Guantanamo Bay, which President Barack Obama has ordered shut down within a year.
Notes prepared for former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in February 2007, obtained by The Canadian Press news agency under Canada's Access to Information Act, indicate the Bush administration asked Canada to accept Uighur detainees from China's Xinjiang region who were deemed to be no threat to national security.
"Canadian officials indicated to the U.S. delegation that the men would likely also be inadmissible under Canadian immigration law," says a Foreign Affairs briefing note prepared about a meeting in 2007.
Lawyer George Clarke, whose client Anwar Hassan applied to Canada last October, said Hassan was sent to Guantanamo after being captured in Pakistan in 2002. A judge ordered their release last September, but no country has been willing to offer them asylum.
"At this point he is looking forward, not backward, and wants to get on with the rest of his life," Clarke said in an e-mail.
Seema Saifee, a New York-based lawyer who represents the other two Uighurs in their mid-30s, said Canada could help.
"Canada can show to the United States that it is willing to step forward and help President Obama. It would be a very wonderful gesture of goodwill," Saifee said.
Canadian opposition Liberal Sen. Colin Kenny, former chairman of the Senate's national security and defense committee, said the United States should be left to deal with its own mess at Guantanamo.
"Why should people clean up their dirty business?" Kenny said from Ottawa. "I don't have much sympathy with the Americans for creating that prison."
Kenny, however, said the only Canadian in the Guantanamo Bay prison, Omar Khadr, should be returned to Canada. Khadr is accused of killing a U.S. medic in Afghanistan. Canada's Conservative government has not asked for his return, though Ottawa has come under increasing pressure to bring him back to Canada.
Human-rights group Amnesty International is urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push for the repatriation of Khadr. Amnesty planned to release a letter to Harper in Ottawa on Wednesday noting that the pending visit of U.S. President Barack Obama on Feb. 19 affords an ideal opportunity for Harper to press the Khadr case.
Khadr has received little sympathy in Canada, where his family has been called the "first family of terrorism." His father was an alleged al-Qaida militant and financier who was slain by Pakistani forces in 2003, and a brother, Abdullah Khadr, is being held in Canada on a U.S. extradition warrant, accused of supplying weapons to al-Qaida.
A U.S. task force has 30 days to recommend where to put the 245 remaining Guantanamo detainees.
In an interview aired Monday on NBC's "Today" show, Obama said he was confident that working with the international community the United States would find a solution to relocating the detainees without jeopardizing national security.
"We can balance those interests in a way that makes all of us proud but also assures that we're not attacked," Obama said.