The lost men of Guantanamo
- April 23, 2012
Last week’s announcement that El Salvador has resettled two Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay is another development in the grindingly slow attempt to bring one of the most shameful episodes in US history to a close.
The Uighurs are the first prisoner releases from Guantanamo since January 2011. They constitute a category of prisoner that has proven to be a particularly tragic – and from the point of view of the Obama administration – problematic consequence of the extra-legal detention system established by its predecessors for ‘the worst of the worst’.
Twenty-two members of China’s Uighur ethnic minority were arrested in Afghanistan or Pakistan in 2001 and held in Guantanamo as suspected ‘enemy combatants’. Most of them were migrants or small entrepreneurs, who were connected to a small Uighur community in Afghanistan that found itself trapped during the 2001 war, and were arrested in Pakistan fleeing the bombings and handed over to US jurisdiction.
The Uighurs were designated by China as members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a separatist organization in Xinjiang Province which the Chinese government claimed was a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda.
The continued imprisonment of the Uighurs appears to have been partly a cynical attempt by the Bush administration to garner Chinese support for the Iraq war. None of them have ever been charged with any offence, and in 2005, they were collectively reclassified as NLECs (‘No longer enemy combatants’).
Even after that, they remained in detention, at times in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day. In 2008 an Uighur prisoner named Abdulghappar Turkistani, published an open letter describing the conditions at Guantanamo, in which
“Being away from family, away from our homeland… being forbidden from the natural sunlight, natural air, being surrounded with a metal box all around, is not suitable for a human being…We fail to know why we are still in jail here. We are still in hope that the US government will free us soon and send us to a safe place.”
These aspirations have taken a long time to materialise. The Uighurs cannot return to China for fear of imprisonment and torture. Nor can they be resettled in the US itself. In 2010 the White House was considering a plan to resettle the Uighurs with Uighur-American families in the United States. But these plans have been blocked by a series of restrictions imposed by Congress, aimed at blocking the resettlement of Guantanamo detainees on US soil.
These efforts culminated in the 2011 Defense Authorisation Act, signed off by Obama in 2012, which obligated the US Defense Secretary to ensure that any released detainee would not pose a threat to the US – conditions that Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon”s General Counsel, described as ‘onerous and near impossible to satisfy.’
The shameful and cowardly decision effectively transformed the Uighurs into stateless non-people. Unwilling to accept responsibility or offer any redress for the gross injustice perpetrated at Guantanamo, the US government has engaged in an unseemly attempt to find countries willing to accept the prisoners whose lives it has kept on hold for more than a decade, through a combination of diplomacy and financial financial inducements.
These countries include Albania, where five Uighurs were transferred in 2006, and Bermuda, which agreed to accept four Uighurs as ‘guestworkers’ in June 2009. That same month the government of Palau, a tiny Pacific island with a population of 20,000, agreed to ‘temporarily resettle’ seventeen Uighurs in return for $200 million in development aid. In December that year six men were transferred to Palau.
Now tiny El Salvador has stepped up to the mark. In an interview with the Salvadoran Prensa Grafica, Daniel Fried, the US diplomat tasked with the resettlement of Guantanamo prisoners praised the ‘Salvadoran government for its ‘wise’ and ‘humanitarian’ willingness to accept the two Uighurs.
This decision may well owe more to the fact that El Salvador has no diplomatic relations with China – and financial inducements that may one day be revealed. But whatever its reasons, this small country of 3 million people has done what the United States should – and could – have done years ago, and helped the world’s most powerful democracy dismantle a human rights disaster that is entirely of its own making.