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Who are the Uighurs?

At the weekend, six of the remaining 13 Uighurs in Guantánamo — Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province — were released to resume new lives in the tiny Pacific nation of Palau (population: 20,000). I have written at length about the plight of Guantánamo’s Uighurs, innocent men caught up in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, who were mostly seized and sold to U.S. forces by Pakistani villagers after fleeing a settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains where they had been living a Spartan live for several months, free from Chinese oppression. Some were hoping to make their way to Turkey, to find work, but had found their way hard, and had been advised to seek out the settlement; others nursed futile dreams of rising up against the Chinese government, and, while working to make the settlement habitable, occasionally loosed off a few rounds from their only weapon, an aged Kalashnikov.

The U.S. authorities knew, almost immediately, that these men had no connection to either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but how, nevertheless, they flew them to Guantánamo, allowed Chinese interrogators to visit them, and tried, in their tribunals at Guantánamo, to make out that they were connected to a Uighur separatist group, which had been designated by the Bush administration as a terrorist group to secure leverage with the Chinese government in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Five of the 22 Uighurs in Guantánamo were released in Albania in May 2006, and how the others had to wait another two years for a U.S. court to establish the right to examine one of their cases, concluding that the government’s supposed evidence resembled a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. I also explained how, last October, the government abandoned trying to claim that any of the other 16 were “enemy combatants,” but appealed after Judge Ricardo Urbina, ruling on their habeas corpus petitions, ordered their release into the United States, because they could not be returned to China, where there were fears that they would be tortured, because no other country had been found that would accept them, and because their continued detention in Guantánamo was unconstitutional.

The Obama administration shamefully defended its predecessor’s opinion in the Court of Appeals, and refused to push to release the men in the U.S., and how, as a result, officials were once more obliged to scour the world seeking countries prepared to enrage China by accepting any of them, finally persuading Bermuda to take four in June, and now persuading Palau to take another six.

I have  written up the stories of these men, in my book The Guantánamo Files, in additional online chapters, and in articles over the last few years, but I am drawing them together here to tell the stories of six men who, nearly eight years after their wrongful and mistaken capture, are finally free from Guantánamo, even if an uncertain future awaits them on an island with no other Uighurs, and only a transient Muslim population of immigrant workers.

Survivors of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre

Although three of them, discussed below, were amongst the 18 seized together by Pakistani villagers, three others were seized in different circumstances. Two, remarkably, survived a notorious massacre in a fortress in northern Afghanistan before they even ended up in U.S. custody. Seized by soldiers of the US-backed Northern Alliance (the opposition to the Taliban), they and other randomly-seized prisoners were taken to Qala-i-Janghi, a mud-walled fortress under the command of the warlord General Rashid Dostum, along with hundreds of mainly Arab and Pakistani fighters for the Taliban, who had left the city of Kunduz, the Taliban’s last outpost in the north of Afghanistan, after a surrender was negotiated between the Northern Alliance and senior Taliban leaders.

Tricked into believing that they would be allowed to return home, some of the men responded to the betrayal — and fears that they were to be executed — by starting an uprising, which was savagely put down by U.S. bombers, representatives of the U.S. and British Special Forces, and Alliance soldiers. The survivors hid in a basement while the battle raged, and 86 men emerged a week later, after the basement had been bombed and, eventually, flooded. The survivors included three Uighurs, and two of these men — Ahmad Tourson and Nag Mohammed — were released in Palau.

Almost nothing is known about Mohammed (identified on his release as Edham Mamet), who was 26 years old at the time, as he refused to take part in his tribunal at Guantánamo or any of the military’s annual review boards, and also refused to meet with his lawyers, but Tourson, who was 30 when seized, attended his tribunal — one of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), deliberately one-side affairs convened in 2004-05 to assess whether the prisoners were “enemy combatants,” who could continue to be held without charge or trial — and willingly explained how, in 2000, he had traveled to Afghanistan with his family, but was caught in the street by Northern Alliance forces in November 2001 and taken to Qala-i-Janghi.

Describing the circumstances of his arrest, he said, “Foreigners, bad people, good people, soldiers, fighters. Everybody walks through the street and I am passing through the road, then I am captured by General Dostum’s troops. It does not explain that all these people are al-Qaeda. It is kind of funny looking. Everybody walks in the street, everybody walks.”

Talking about his experience of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre, he stated, “I was taken there when I was captured. I did not participate in the riot. They dropped bombs and I was injured. I was not a soldier.” He also told the tribunal that a Uighur friend of his was killed in Qala-i-Janghi, and provide the panel of military officers with one of the most succinct explanations of why neither he nor any of his fellow Uighurs would wish to fight Americans. “I have nothing against the Americans,” he said. “Why would I participate in the riot? All Uighurs have one enemy, the Chinese. We have no other enemies.”

A stray Uighur seized in Pakistan

The other Uighur who was not seized as part of the group of 18 is Adel Noori, who was 32 years old at the time of his capture, and, who, like his fellow countrymen, maintained in Guantánamo that he had only one enemy — the Chinese Communist government. He explained that he was “never asked to participate in a jihad against the United States while in Afghanistan,” and “had no negative feelings toward the United States.”

Noori had arrived in Kabul in July 2001 and had stayed at a house until the US began bombing the city in October. Denying an allegation that the house was a “training camp,” he explained, “It was a small house and not a training camp. There wasn’t any room for training.” When the bombing began, he said that he and the other Uighurs in the house “ran in all directions for safety.” He and three companions ended up fleeing to Pakistan, where, according to the U.S. authorities, they “were arrested by the Pakistani police while trying to evade detection (dressed in burkas)” in Lahore on January 15, 2002, a desperate ploy at a time when Arabs and other foreigners in Pakistan were being seized and sold to U.S. forces for bounty payments.

Three of the 18 Uighurs seized in Pakistan

Of the three men who were seized after fleeing the settlement in the Tora Bora mountains, Dawut Abdurehim, who was 27 years old at the time and who sold animal skins in China, told his tribunal that he lived at the settlement from June to October 2001, and, in response to an allegation that the settlement had been provided by the Taliban, gave the tribunal a history lesson, explaining how “the Afghan people and the Uighurs have had a relationship since the 1920s,” and how, “In the Taliban’s time, they just gave a place for the Uighur people … The place we stayed had trees around it. We didn’t step into other people’s property. We just stayed where we were.”

Abdurehim also explained that he and his 17 companions were captured in Pakistan after fleeing the settlement when it was destroyed in a US bombing raid. He described how one person was killed in the bombing raid — “his body was exploded” — and how afterwards “we moved around and some places even had monkeys that were also screaming at us.” He also described being visited by a Chinese delegation in Guantánamo, in which, he said, he was vaguely threatened, but reported that “some other Uighurs had conversations with bad, dirty language,” in which they were told that “when we go back to the country, we’d be killed or sentenced to prison for a long time.” He also explained that, after three years in Guantánamo, he had not heard from his family. “They don’t know where I am,” he said. “They think I’m still doing business somewhere.”

Another of the men, Abdulghappar Abdul Rahman, who was 28 at the time of capture, told his tribunal that he had traveled to Afghanistan to “get some training to fight back against the Chinese government,” but although he arrived at the settlement in the mountains near Jalalabad in June 2001, he explained that he actually spent most of his time working on mending the house that was there, and on only one occasion shot three bullets from the solitary Kalashnikov.

In common with his compatriots, he also stressed 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 U.S. or its allies?” came up with an answer that summed up the feelings of all of Guantánamo’s Uighurs even more forcefully than Ahmad Tourson: “I have one point: a billion Chinese enemies, that is enough for me. Why would I get more enemies?”

In December 2007, Abdulghappar wrote a letter from Guantánamo, which I published after it was cleared by the Pentagon’s censors and made available by his lawyers in March 2008. In it, he explained how he and his companions “left our homeland in order to escape from the brutal suppression and unfair treatment from the Chinese government towards our people. The Uighur youth back home were either incarcerated because of false accusations or prosecuted and executed because of bogus allegations. It was extremely difficult for any Uighur to see a future for themselves within our homeland, and both young and middle-aged Uighurs started to leave East Turkistan [the Uighurs’ name for their homeland before Chinese occupation] and try to find survival abroad, if anyone could find a way to get out.”

After explaining the circumstances of the men’s capture, he lamented the fact that the U.S. authorities had failed to recognize their plight:

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 U.S. 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.

He then described how his health had declined, and how one of his countrymen, Abdulrazaq (who is still at Guantánamo) had been told in August 2007 that he would be released. As a result, he asked to be moved from the isolated cells in Camp 6, and embarked on a hunger strike when his request was refused. Abdulghappar added:

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 … 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 U.S. 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 U.S. constitution and the Communist constitution?

Little is known of the last man, Anwar Hassan, who was 27 when he was seized, because he, like Nag Mohamed, refused to take part in his tribunal or his review boards. However, his lawyers, Angela Vigil and George Clarke, explained that he was one of several prisoners whose tribunals had been reconvened when they produced what Matthew Waxman, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, regarded as the wrong result. They noted that, “contrary to the government’s suggestion,” the change of determination between the first and second CSRTs was not based on “additional classified information” (of which there was none), but seemed, instead, to have been based solely on “communications” from Matthew Waxman “pressing for [a] reversal” of the first CSRT determination.

The “do-over” tribunals were a low point, even for the Bush administration, with its complete disregard for fairness, justice and the law, but with a massacre, human trafficking for bounty payments, cynical deals between the U.S. and Chinese governments, and hunger strikes and force-feeding as part of these men’s experience of U.S. custody, it remains a disappointment to me that they have now — apparently for nearly $100,000 a head – handed off to Palau, rather than being allowed to settle in the United States.

ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British journalist and historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk

 

 

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ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British journalist, the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press), and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the new Guantánamo documentary, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.’ Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk        WORDS THAT STICK ?  

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