GENEVA (AP) — China warned the Swiss government Friday against accepting two Guantanamo inmates as part of President Barack Obama’s effort to close the detention center, calling them terrorist suspects who should face Chinese justice.
In a sharply worded statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the pair of ethnic minority Uighurs posed a serious security threat to China, and to Switzerland if it were to offer them a new home.
Switzerland is hoping to curry favor with the Obama administration after last year’s drawn-out dispute over wealthy Americans who hid billions of dollars from the Internal Revenue Service in Swiss bank accounts.
The Alpine nation agreed in December to accept one Uzbek inmate held for over seven years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, following other European nations, including France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and Portugal, that have agreed in recent months to accept detainees.
But it has yet to make a final decision on the two Chinese Uighurs, the Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement.
Chinese tensions with the ethnic Uighurs in the Western region of Xinjiang have long been high, and Beijing is highly sensitive to any separatist inclinations.
The Chinese statement Friday to The Associated Press followed a private warning it sent to the Swiss government, and said the two Uighurs that have been selected by Swiss migration officials for possible relocation are “terrorist suspects.”
Beijing said they were members of a group called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, their names are included on a U.N. sanctions list, and they should be handed over to China.
“We oppose the U.S. passing the terrorist suspects to a third country by ignoring the strong opposition of China,” said the statement.
“We also oppose any countries accepting these suspects,” it said, adding that Switzerland should avoid damaging “overall Sino-Swiss relations.”
Uighur activists say the inmates could be imprisoned, tortured and even killed if they are returned to China.
The Swiss Justice Ministry said it wouldn’t reveal the names of the inmates.
The ministry told the Chinese it will examine all aspects of security, integration and foreign policy before deciding whether to offer a home to the Uighurs, according to a statement. It also must gain the permission of a local canton.
When he became president, Obama ordered the Guantanamo detention facility closed within a year — a deadline that is now only weeks away and will not be met. To close the facility, the U.S. government still must refurbish a prison in Illinois to hold some prisoners, put others on trial and send some abroad.
Nearly 200 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, and they include seven Uighurs picked up in Afghanistan after fleeing western China. Last year, four Uighurs found a new home in Bermuda and six in the Pacific island nation of Palau.
Associated Press Writer Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.