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The stories of the Uyghurs in Guantánamo — Muslims from the oppressed Xinjiang province of China, formerly known as East Turkistan — have long demonstrated chronic injustice on the part of the US authorities to those who know of them, although they have only sporadically registered on the media’s radar.
Numbering 22 men in total, three were picked up randomly in Afghanistan, another was caught crossing the Pakistani border disguised in a burka, while the other 18 were seized together by opportunistic Pakistani villagers, after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the US-led invasion in October 2001, and sold to US forces for a bounty, as was common at the time. A leaflet dropped by US planes offered enterprising villagers and soldiers "millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers."
These 18 men, who had fled their homeland because of persecution, in search of a new life, or in the hope of gaining some sort of training to enable them to fight back against their oppressors, had been living together in a small, run-down hamlet in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, mending the settlement’s ruined buildings, and occasionally training on their only weapon, a aging AK-47.
After the US-led invasion, they were targeted in a US bombing raid, in which several men died. The survivors then made their way across the mountains to the Pakistani border, where they were first welcomed by the villagers, and then betrayed by them. In US custody, they attracted attention because of their supposed insights into the workings of the Chinese government, but it was apparent from early on that they had not been involved with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda, and that there was no reason to hold them.
Unfortunately for the Uyghurs, however, the declaration of their innocence only prefaced further problems, as they joined one of Guantánamo’s least enviable groups: cleared prisoners who, because of international treaties, cannot be returned to their home countries for fear that they will be subjected to torture, or worse. The US government had obligingly declared those opposed to Chinese rule in Xinjiang province as "terrorists," in order to secure support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and had even allowed — or invited — Chinese interrogators to question the men in Guantánamo, but when it came to returning them to China they refused to do so.
Attempts to persuade other countries to accept the Uyghurs — and other cleared prisoners who faced similar problems with repatriation — were both long and largely futile. Despite the fact that some of these men had been regarded as wrongly detained while they were in US-run prisons in Afghanistan, and that many had been cleared after military tribunals in Guantánamo in 2004, it was not until May 2006 that one country — Albania, one of Europe’s poorest nations — could be prevailed upon to accept five of the men, who were joined, in December 2006, by another three cleared prisoners from Algeria, Egypt and the former Soviet Union.
Living in a UN refugee camp in Tirana has not been without its problems — there is no Uyghur community in Albania, no prospect of work, and no opportunity for the men to have contact with their families — but it is at least better than being in Guantánamo, where their compatriots, who have, for the most part, also been cleared for release (the exact details are, like much else at Guantánamo, difficult to gauge with absolute confidence), remain in a limbo that seems, literally, to be without end.
Compounding their suffering, the Uyghurs, like the majority of the dozens of other cleared prisoners, are held not in comfort in Camp 4 (Guantánamo’s only block with communal dorms) but in Camp 6, a maximum security prison in which they are held in complete isolation, in metal cells without windows, for 22 to 23 hours a day.
One of these men is Abdulghappar, who is now 35 years old. In 2004, he explained to his military tribunal that he had traveled to Afghanistan to "get some training to fight back against the Chinese government," and added that he had nothing against the United States. He said that his own people "and my own family are being tortured under the Chinese government," and when asked, "Was it your intention when you were training to fight against the US or its allies?" came up with an answer that summed up the feelings of all his imprisoned compatriots: "I have one point: a billion Chinese enemies, that is enough for me. Why would I get more enemies?"
Abdulghappar recently wrote a letter to his lawyers, which was declassified by the military censors who review all correspondence between lawyers and their clients. It was then passed to the Associated Press, who quoted parts of the letter in an article last week, which was then picked up by other media outlets.
In the hope of providing Abdulghappar with more of his own voice, however, I asked his lawyers for a copy of the letter, which I reproduce in its entirety below. As it is a translation, I have taken the liberty of editing the language to convey his message more fully.
Abdulghappar’s letter from Guantánamo
How are you, Mr. J. Wells Dixon and Ms. Seema Saifee? I hope that this letter reaches you before you come over, and I hope that it will be a little beneficial for our Turkistani brothers’ situation here.
We, the Turkistani brothers, left our homeland in order to escape from the brutal suppression and unfair treatment from the Chinese government towards our people. The Uyghur youth back home were either incarcerated because of false accusations or prosecuted and executed because of bogus allegations. It was extremely difficult for any Uyghur to see a future for themselves within our homeland, and both young and middle-aged Uyghurs started to leave East Turkistan and try to find survival abroad, if anyone could find a way to get out. We, the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, are also like those Uyghurs. We left our homeland for the same cause and sought solace in our neighboring countries.
As you know, for some specific reasons we ended up in Afghanistan. When we arrived in Afghanistan, the US army invaded. We had to depart for Pakistan, since we could not stay in Afghanistan. As we did not know anyone who could help us there, we had no other choice but to leave. The Pakistani people then arrested us and turned us over to the Pakistani government. Subsequently, the Pakistani government sold us to the US army for bounties. The US army then brought us to Guantánamo.
Since the very beginning of the interrogations, we have been saying this. Our circumstances are very clear to the US government, the US army and related agencies. Thus, the East Turkistani people and we, the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, have never had any revulsion against the US at any time, and this would never be possible, because our homeland is being occupied and we need the help of others.
We were very pleased at the beginning when the Pakistanis turned us over to American custody. We sincerely hoped that America would be sympathetic to us and help us. Unfortunately, the facts were different. Although in 2004 and 2005 we were told that we were innocent, we have been incarcerated in jail for the past six years until the present day. We fail to know why we are still in jail here.
We still hope that the US government will free us soon and send us to a safe place. Being away from family, away from our homeland, and also away from the outside world and losing any contact with anyone is not suitable for a human being, as, also, is being forbidden from experiencing natural sunlight and natural air, and being surrounded by a metal box on all sides.
I was very healthy in the past. However, since I was brought to Camp 6, I got rheumatism. My joints started to hurt all the time and are getting worse. My kidneys started to hurt ten days ago.
My countryman Abdulrazaq used to have rheumatism for a while, and since he came to Camp 6 it got worse. Sometime in early August, the US army told Abdulrazaq that he was cleared to be released, and also issued the release form to him in writing. As a result, Abdulrazaq requested to move to a camp that had better conditions, for health reasons. When his request was ignored he embarked on a hunger strike, which has lasted for over a month now.
Currently, he is on punishment and his situation is even worse. He is shackled to the restraint chair and force-fed twice a day by the guards, who wear glass shields on their faces. This has taken place for the past 20 days. For someone who has not eaten for a long time, such treatment is not humane. Abdulrazaq would never want to go on hunger strike. However, the circumstances here forced him to do so, as he had no other choice. If the oppression was not unbearable, who would want to throw himself on a burning fire? In the US constitution, is it a crime for someone to ask to protect his health and to ask for his rights? If it does count as a crime, then what is the difference between the US constitution and the Communist constitution? What is the difference between this and Hitler’s policies during the Second World War?
I have heard that an Egyptian man broke his back and became handicapped while he was being handled by a team in Camp 1 or 2, and then he was sent home as a crippled person for the rest of his life [Sami El-Leithi, released in October 2005]. Another Libyan broke his arm also. I worry that Abdulrazaq will face a similar or worse situation while being force fed twice a day for a long time, and I am also concerned for his psychological condition as it is extremely difficult for him to keep his mental state normal under such circumstances.
Recently, I started to wonder, "why are we staying in this jail for so long?" I wonder if we will be released after we damage our internal and external organs and our arms and legs. Or is it necessary for a few Turkistanis to die, as happened in the past here in this jail, in order to gain others’ attention and their concern towards our matter? Such thoughts are in my mind all the time. The reason I am writing this letter to you is that I sincerely hope that you and others related to law and enforcement can solve this issue quickly and help us in a practical manner.
Abdulghappar Turkistani (281)
December 12, 2007.
Guantánamo Bay jail, Camp 6.
ANDY WORTHINGTON (www.andyworthington.co.uk) is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org