February 4, 2009 / 3:09 PM / 9 years ago

Canada denies it ready to take Guantanamo Uighurs

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada on Wednesday denied a newspaper report that it was close to accepting three Muslims from China’s Uighur minority who are imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba but have been cleared for release.

<p>Razorwire-topped fences are seen at the "Camp Six" detention facility at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay December 10, 2008, in this file photo reviewed by the U.S. military. Canada could accept three Chinese Moslem Uighur men who are imprisoned at the facility in Cuba but have been cleared for release, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on Wednesday. REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool</p>

A total of 17 Uighurs are in the prison. Although no longer considered “enemy combatants,” they are still at Guantanamo because the United States has been unable to find a country willing to take them.

The Globe and Mail said Uighur human rights activist Mehmet Tohti met with senior government officials -- including Immigration Minister Jason Kenney -- on Jan 23 and urged them to accept the three men.

It quoted Tothi as saying “There was a positive consensus ... They were not against it”.

Kenney’s office said no deal was in the works.

“The reports that Canada is close to accepting three Uighur Guantanamo Bay detainees are false,” said Kenney spokesman Alykhan Velshi.

“This particular meeting, which involved representatives from different cultural communities, was to discuss consular issues, not resettling detainees from Guantanamo Bay.”

U.S. President Barack Obama -- who will visit Canada on February 19 -- wants Guantanamo closed within a year.

Tohti could not immediately be reached for comment.

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.

Amnesty International wrote a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday saying he should make clear to the United States that the Canadian government would accept any of the 17 Uighurs who wanted to come to Canada.

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.

If Canada did accept any or all of the Uighurs, it would focus even more attention on the case of Canadian Omar Khadr -- the only Westerner still imprisoned in Guantanamo.

Opposition legislators and human rights activists say Ottawa should press Washington for the return of Khadr, who was captured at age 15 and is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002.

Canada’s Conservative government has so far refused to act, saying Khadr faces serious charges. Khadr’s trial was halted last month after Obama took power.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty

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