WASHINGTON (AFP) — President Barack Obama's administration said Thursday it could not imagine returning Muslim Uighurs held in Guantanamo Bay to China and said no inmate would be sent to a nation where they may face persecution.
"I cannot imagine that we would support transferring the Uighurs back to China," said a senior administration official on condition of anonymity.
"We are not going to transfer detainees to countries that will mistreat them," the official said, hours after Obama signed an executive order requiring the closure of the "war on terror" camp within one year.
A group of 17 Uighurs has been held in limbo at Guantanamo -- despite being cleared for release by the US government -- because officials cannot find a country willing to take them.
The men cannot be returned to China because of fears they would be tortured there as political dissidents.
Earlier Beijing had called for the return of the 17 prisoners that it said were part of a terror group seeking an independent homeland in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
"These people are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) terrorist organization on a sanctioned list of the UN Security Council," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing.
"They should be handed over to China, which will handle the case by law."
The 17 men have been held at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay for more than six years without charge.
Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, 61, said she was "very happy to hear that the White House will not send the Guantanamo Uighurs to China and that the United States' policy on the Guantanamo Uighurs has not changed.
"I express the hope that the White House will further urge China to improve the human rights situation that exists in East Turkestan, where Uighurs suffer under an extremely oppressive regime," she added, appealing for those at Guantanamo to be allowed into the United States.
The Uighurs were living in a self-contained camp in Afghanistan when the US-led coalition bombing campaign began in October 2001. They fled to the mountains, but were turned over to Pakistani authorities, who then handed them over to the United States.
On October 7, US federal judge Ricardo Urbina ordered that they should be freed in the Washington area where Uighur families are willing to take them in.
But the previous administration of former president George W. Bush contested the decision, arguing it would set a bad precedent for others who are held in Guantanamo and pose a security risk. And the original ruling was frozen.
Only Albania has so far agreed to take any Uighur detainees, welcoming a group of five in 2006.