Journey to Freedom

Seven years and many obstacles later, the journey ended for four Uighurs on June 11 with their release from Guantanamo Bay to Bermuda. Bingham McCutchen partner Sabin Willett has represented the four since 2002. He describes the days leading up to his clients' release.

, The American Lawyer


Most days, Bingham McCutchen partner Sabin Willett works out of his office in Boston. But on the morning of June 11, Willett was at work in a clothing store in Bermuda. He was accompanying four longtime clients, all four Uighurs--Chinese Muslims from China's northwest province--who had landed on the island only hours before after spending seven years as Guantanamo detainees. Now free, the men were in need of some basics--shorts, shirts, bathing suits. As they browsed, a local talk show host could be heard on the shopkeeper's radio, blasting the Bermudan government for taking in the four Uighurs and painting the island’s new inhabitants as Jihadist terrorists

As Willett tells it, the shopkeeper looked up at the ragtag group, looked back down at the radio, then said, "Never mind that lot, welcome to the island." The response, Willett says, is typical of Bermudans, who less than a week ago welcomed the former detainees to their island paradise. (The Uighurs for their part seem to be enjoying their newfound freedom as well, as this New York Times story about their first days in Bermuda details.)

The journey to freedom has included many roadblocks for the Uighurs and their lawyers. (The American Lawyer has covered the lawyers' efforts to win release of the Uighurs, including a feature in the pro bono issue last July and several posts in this space). According to Willett, the week before last Thursday’s dawn landing at the Bermuda airport was particularly stressful. While Willett believes the Bermudan and U.S. governments were discussing Bermuda as a possible destination for their clients as early as April, the Bingham team only found out about the destination at the end of May. "It really came together in principal on June 5," says Willett (he and Bingham partner Susan Baker Manning accompanied the group from Gitmo to the island). "We felt that this was real and now we needed to take some logistical steps."

Because phone calls to Guantanamo are monitored, Willett says he was deeply concerned about the possibility of a leak when he called his clients on June 5 to tell them they would soon be freed. So he decided to take some precautionary steps.

"Over the years I have figured out who the monitoring guy at the Pentagon is that listens in on our calls," says Willett. "So I called him up and said, 'If this leaks, I'll know that you were the source.'" That might have done the trick--there were no leaks prior to the landing in Bermuda. (Willett, who first signed on to represent some of the Uighurs held at Guantanamo in 2005, took a similar hard line with his clients. He warned the detainees that if the news got out before they landed on Bermudan soil, they might be stuck at Guantanamo for several more months.)

On June 9, the Bingham lawyers flew to Bermuda. The next day they were in Hamilton, the island's capital, meeting with senior ministers, officials from the U.S. State Department, and a White House representative. At 3 a.m. on the morning of June 11, they landed on the tarmac at Gitmo where their clients awaited their arrival. Three hours later, the lawyers were back in Bermuda, this time with clients in tow.

"Nobody’s slept for two days, everyone's giddy, the guys are just so thrilled," says Willett about the mood that day. "Something I didn’t understand until now is what it must have felt like to be the world's outcasts, the people that nobody wanted. This little island wanted them, and they feel immense gratitude."

The four Uighurs are part of Bermuda's guest worker program and the government will help them find jobs and eventually allow them to apply for citizenship. At that point, they will be free to leave the island, though it's unclear if they would be allowed to come to the United States. (Initially, the country agreed to take just two Uighurs but Willett says he convinced them to take two more by suggesting it would be helpful to bring in the two who speak some English.) One former detainee hopes to reunite with his 11-year-old son, who still lives in China, according to Willett. That could prove to be difficult since China has been demanding the Uighurs's return to the country and accuses them of terrorist acts.

What of the 13 Uighurs who remain at Guantanamo? According to Willett, a group of lawyers representing them flew to the base last weekend to discuss the possible release of the detainees to Palau. (Two of the 13 are Bingham clients.)

Though Willett is buoyed by his clients' release, he echoes the frustrations of other lawyers handling these cases on how the ordeal has unfolded. "When we get a little removed and get some perspective on this, we all should feel a large sense of shame," he says. "What makes us so pathetic that we can't resolve our own problems and have to send them to islands? Shame on us."