BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Tuesday it wants 17 Muslim Chinese terror suspects returned if the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is closed by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.
Obama has pledged to close the prison at the U.S. naval station in southeastern Cuba, which has come to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to allegations of torture.
Although the U.S. military no longer considers the 17 Chinese Uighurs â€œenemy combatants,â€ they have remained at Guantanamo because the United States has been unable to find a country willing to take them.
â€œThe 17 terror suspects imprisoned in the U.S. military base of Guantanamo Bay are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has been listed as a terrorist organization by the United Nations,â€ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
â€œFor these terror suspects, the Chinese government has always requested they be sent back to China and firmly opposes any country accepting them,â€ he told a news briefing.
In 2006, the United States allowed five Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo to go to Albania. The U.S. government has said it cannot return the Uighurs to China because they would face persecution there.
The Obama camp has not made clear what it would do with the Uighurs. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration understood Chinaâ€™s point of view but needed to â€œassure ourselves that if people are transferred out of Guantanamo under whatever status that they are not going to be mistreated in any way, shape or form.
â€œAt this point we donâ€™t believe that it would be the right thing to do to transfer these individuals back to China,â€ he told reporters in Washington.
Many Muslim Uighurs, who are from Xinjiang in far western China, seek greater autonomy for the region and some want independence. Beijing has waged a relentless campaign against what it calls their violent separatist activities.
The Uighurs had been living in a camp in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led bombing campaign that began in October 2001. They fled into the mountains and were detained by Pakistani authorities, who handed them over to the United States.
(Reporting by Liu Zhen and Paul Eckert; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Bill Trott)