Today’s WaPo story on the fiteen Chinese Uighurs stranded at the Guantanamo Bay Gulag sadly demonstrates nearly everything that’s wrong with the Bush assministration’s treatment of “enemy combatants”.
In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that 15 Chinese Muslims detained at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released. Five were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for U.S. payoffs. The other 10 were deemed low-risk detainees whose enemy was China’s communist government — not the United States, according to senior U.S. officials.
More than 20 months later, the 15 still languish at Guantanamo Bay, imprisoned and sometimes shackled, with most of their families unaware whether they are even alive.
They are men without a country. The Bush administration has chosen not to send them home for fear China will imprison, persecute or torture them, as the United States charges has happened to other members of China’s Muslim minority. But the State Department has also been unable to find another country to take them in, according to U.S. officials and recently filed court documents.
For the Chinese Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs ), there is no end in sight. About 20 countries — including Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Turkey and a Latin American country — have turned down U.S. overtures to give them asylum, according to U.S. officials.
The State Department says it is still working behind the scenes to find the Uighurs a home. A senior official called their situation “unfortunate.”
This month, lawyers and human rights groups appealed to the United States to take in the stranded Uighurs. “It’s not like these people were once considered to be a threat and now are not,” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. “These people need to be released, either in another country or the U.S. They’re America’s responsibility.”
Sabin P. Willett, a Boston lawyer who volunteered to take the cases of two Uighurs in March, finally met with them last month, after he and his team went through their own FBI clearances. One of the Uighurs was “chained to the floor” in a “box with no windows,” Willett said in an Aug. 1 court hearing.
“You’re not talking about your client?” asked Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court in Washington.
“I’m talking about my client,” Willett said.
“He was chained to a floor?” Robertson asked again.
“He had a leg shackle that was chained to a bolt in the floor,” Willett replied.
All 15 Uighurs have actually been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay twice, once after a Pentagon review in late 2003 and again last March, U.S. officials said. Seven other Uighurs were ruled to be enemy combatants and will continue to be detained.
Even after the second decision, however, the government did not notify the 15 men for several months that they had been cleared. “They clearly were keeping secret that these men were acquitted. They were found not to be al Qaeda and not to be Taliban,” Willett said. “But the government still refused to provide a transcript of the tribunal that acquitted them to the detainees, their new lawyers or a U.S. court.”