On a recent Saturday night, 200 or so members of Washington, DC’s Uighur community gathered at the Northern Virginia Community College cultural center to celebrate Nation’s Day. The event commemorated the Central Asian ethnic group’s creation of the Republic of East Turkistan and declaration of independence from China—twice (once in 1933 and again in 1944). The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurz) spent the evening listening to traditional poetry recited by an elderly man in a sequined hat who occasionally burst into patriotic a cappella song, calling on people to throw off the yoke of oppression. Dark-suited men and women in elegant shiny head wraps clapped along with accordion music and consumed traditional Uighur party food: a whole lamb kebob, which was quickly stripped to the bone by hungry guests and their gaggle of children. The attendees represented a large chunk of the nation’s tiny Uighur community. Yet the festive event was most notable for who wasn’t there: 17 Uighur men who have been wrongly detained at Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years.
The suburban Virginia Uighurs had hoped the men would attend the festivities after a federal judge in DC ordered the detainees released into the US in October. The 17 men would have been the first Guantanamo detainees who are not US citizens allowed into the United States. The Uighur community was ecstatic with the ruling, but the excitement was short-lived. A day after US District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the detainees released, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals granted the Justice Department’s emergency request to stay his decision. Relying on McCarthy-era legal precedent, Justice Department lawyers argued that even though the men are no longer considered enemy combatants—they’ve been cleared many times over of that status—detaining them indefinitely at Guantanamo is still legal. The court will hear oral arguments Monday morning over whether or not Urbina’s order to bring the men to the US should be enforced.
The long-running Uighur saga is one of the most heart-wrenching and complex stories to arise out of the global fight against terrorism since the September 11 attacks. The fate of the 17 detainees holds great symbolic value for both the Bush administration and human rights activists who believe that the Uighurs represent all that has gone wrong with the administration’s war on terror.
A Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group, Uighurs hail from a region along the old Silk Road in western China. Their Republic of East Turkistan was an independent country from 1864 until 1876, when the Manchu empire reinvaded and, after a bloody eight-year war, renamed it Xinjiang (meaning “new frontier”). In 1949, Chinese communists annexed the area. The Uighurs have long faced political and religious repression at the hands of the Chinese that has included everything from forced abortions and death penalties for dissent to the relocation of educated Uighurs to remote parts of the country.
In response, there have been outbursts of violence credited to Uighur nationalist groups, but those have been rare. Uighur exiles in the US say that the Chinese government has inflated the threat of terrorism from Uighurs as an excuse to crack down on the religious minority. Nonetheless, in 2002, the Bush administration officially designated the Uighurs’ East Turkistan Islamic Movement a terrorist group as it attempted to win Chinese support for its invasion of Iraq. Uighur exile groups and other human rights experts criticized the designation at the time, saying that it was based on thin charges from the Chinese and that its main result would be more Chinese oppression of the Uighurs. As it turned out, the designation set the stage for the indefinite detention of 17 men from Xinjiang who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 2001, about two dozen Uighurs who had left China were living in a camp in Afghanistan, where some were waiting for visas that would allow them to travel to Turkey, a country they had heard would grant them political asylum. Some of the men would later acknowledge they had indeed gone for military training to help their countrymen fight the Chinese, though the extent of their training proved to be minimal at best. When the US government invaded, the Uighur camp was bombed and the men fled to Pakistan, where bounty hunters turned them over to the US military for $5,000 a person.
The military transferred the men to Guantanamo Bay in 2002, where they’ve been ever since. To justify the Uighurs’ detention, the Pentagon has accused them of being members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which it alleged was connected to Al Qaeda. The military also claimed that the Uighurs had received military training sponsored by the Taliban or Al Qaeda while in Afghanistan. US military officials allowed Chinese officials to interrogate the Uighurs after they had been “softened up” with sleep deprivation techniques decried as a form of torture. Later, in 2004, the Pentagon officially designated the Uighurs enemy combatants, even though there had already been talk about releasing them.
By 2005, the Pentagon had concluded that the Uighurs were not terrorists and should be released. But if the US sent the Uighurs back to China, they were likely to be persecuted. So the State Department set to work trying to find them a home elsewhere. But after all the publicity about the Guantanamo detainees and their alleged threat to humanity, no country would take them. The Uighurs continued to languish at Guantanamo, where the military has denied most of them contact with their families back home.
Meanwhile, lawyers had begun to challenge the Uighurs’ detention in federal court. In 2006, three days before oral arguments in their case, the US released five Uighur detainees and sent them to a refugee camp in Albania, where they languished for nearly two years. (One has since been able to move to Sweden, where he had family; the other four now live in apartments and work in a pizza parlor, according to their lawyer, Sabin Willett.) The move prompted a diplomatic crisis between Albania and China, which had been demanding that the US send the Uighurs back to China. Albania refused to take anymore Uighurs, and the Chinese government started to make veiled threats of trade sanctions to other countries, including Germany, that the US had approached to take the rest of the Uighurs. So the remaining 17 Uighurs have been stuck at Guantanamo, still in prison, waiting for the State Department to find them a home.
In the end, it could be the great American melting pot that comes through for the Uighurs. Members of northern Virginia’s Uighur community have volunteered to take in the detainees if they are released into the US. When the 17 remaining Uighur detainees petitioned the court for their release, they included a US resettlement plan as part of their argument that the US could no longer justify their indefinite detention now that there was somewhere they could safely go. The proposal apparently played a significant role in Urbina’s decision in October to order the detainees freed. The Justice Department, however, has vigorously resisted releasing the Uighurs into the US. As Willett, the lawyer representing the Uighur detainees says, “It’s all a desperate rearguard action to make sure the Uighurs never show up on 60 Minutes.”
Depending on how the DC Appellate Court responds to Monday’s arguments, Ilshat Hassan could soon have a new roommate. A member of the Uyghur American Association (the UAA uses an alternative spelling of Uighur), Hassan had been a teacher for 15 years in China before he came to the United States and received political asylum. The Booz-Allen “administrative professional” lives in an apartment in McLean, Virginia, where he has volunteered to take in one of the detainees, teach him English, and help him get a job, the same way other Uighurs helped him when he arrived here as a refugee.
At the cultural center, I asked him whether he thought his neighbors might be concerned that a former “enemy combatant” would be living among them. He didn’t think they’d mind, mostly because the detainees “are innocent and everyone knows that.” Besides, he said, most of his neighbors are single guys from Iran. They know a little about guilt by association when it comes to terrorism allegations. Hassan said his biggest job will be teaching his new charge about American culture and how to respect other people’s opinions. After living in communist China, with one-sided media and propaganda, “We like to argue a lot,” he said, laughing.
Turdi Ghoja, one of the founders of the UAA, said the families who have volunteered to take in the detainees don’t believe they present any risk to the community. “Uighurs, no matter where they live, we assume we know them,” he said, noting that people have volunteered because they recognize that “It could be me. It could be my brother.”
At the same time, the Uighurs acknowledge that after seven years in detention, some of it solitary confinement, the detainees may have issues that go beyond those of other refugees. “I’m sure they’ve been exposed to a lot of things and they’ve suffered a lot,” Ghoja said. But none of them expect the detainees to turn their anger on the US once they are here. “Any problems with the men being released can be prevented with two things: an apology and appropriate counseling,” said Nury Turkel, an American-trained lawyer and past president of the UAA.
Indeed, if the American Uighur community is harboring any resentment over the detainee issue, they weren’t showing it at the cultural center. Looking around the room at the folks gathered for music and lamb, Turkel said with a sweep of the hand, “The vast majority of people you see here are grateful for political asylum. Uighurs are still pro-America, believe it or not.” Like them, he expects that the detainees will appreciate the fact that while the US may have illegally imprisoned them, the country also did not return them to China, as the Chinese demanded. “From the detainees’ perspective, it would be a big defeat for China if they are released here,” Ghoja said.
In a strange way, the detainee case has helped publicize the Uighurs’ larger human rights cause in China, too. “The funny thing about the Uighurs is that they are the Tibetans you’ve never heard of,” says Willett. The Uighurs even have their own version of the Dali Lama in Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur business owner who was once one of the most wealthy women in China. She spent five years in a Chinese prison for sending newspaper clippings on human rights abuses to her husband in Oklahoma. Kadeer had been on her way to meet with an American congressional delegation when she was arrested.
Kadeer is a sprightly older woman with long, black braids who now lives in suburban Virginia. She was at the Nation’s Day celebration, in a room decorated with photos of her with George and Laura Bush, Nelson Mandela, Madeline Albright, and even the Dalai Lama. She is one of the reasons that the Uighurs don’t harbor more anger toward the US government over the detainees’ treatment. “President Bush helped rescue me from Chinese prison,” she explained through a translator. (The Chinese released Kadeer a few days before Condolezza Rice visited China in 2005 to discuss human rights and other issues.)
Kadeer and the other members of the Uighur community seem more upset about the Chinese role in the detainee debacle than the US’s. They believe the Uighurs landed at Guantanamo because China fabricated stories about Uighur terrorist groups. “They call me personally, and the World Uighur Congress, a terrorist organization,” Kadeer said. “But we are firmly united against terrorism. We understand what terror means because we are the victims.” She said that while it’s tragic that the Uighurs were imprisoned at Guantanamo, what’s important to her is that they eventually got their day in an unbiased court.
“In the 60 years of my life, that was the first time I saw a Uighur able to defend himself in a court of law,” she said, noting that tens of thousands of innocent Uighurs are in prison in China, where they can’t get lawyers even though they are facing the death penalty. “I’m an example. I was one of them. I was innocent.” Two of Kadeer’s eleven children are still in prison because of her involvement in human rights work. “Compared to that situation, the young men in Guantanamo, they got a just court. They had their voices heard through lawyers. I greatly appreciate the fact that they had the opportunity to have a court trial. They will appreciate that.”
Photo from Flickr user Manila Ryce used under a Creative Commons license.