U.S., China Debate Over Uighur Gitmo Detainees

This file photo from May 2006 shows two Chinese Uighur Muslims in Albania. i i

hide captionThis May 2006 photo shows two Chinese Uighur Muslims at the Albanian National Center for Refugees in Tirana. They had been released from Guantanamo Bay prison camp earlier that month.

Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images
This file photo from May 2006 shows two Chinese Uighur Muslims in Albania.

This May 2006 photo shows two Chinese Uighur Muslims at the Albanian National Center for Refugees in Tirana. They had been released from Guantanamo Bay prison camp earlier that month.

Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images

Efforts by President Barack Obama's administration to close down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay came under more pressure Wednesday, as a federal appeals court overturned a district court ruling that would have released 17 Chinese Muslim detainees into the United States.

The 17 men are ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who inhabit parts of China bordering on Central Asia. Their plight exposes deep political differences between the U.S. and China about counterterrorism: China considers the men terrorists and has warned other countries against harboring them.

Wednesday's ruling by the federal appeals court said it was up to the executive branch — not the judicial — to decide whether the Uighurs could stay in the U.S.

The Uighurs' supporters say this gives the Obama administration an opportunity to set an important precedent in the resettlement of detainees. It would also be a small step, supporters say, in making up for the Uighurs' seven years of wrongful imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay.

In 2004 and 2005, Guantanamo detainees went before military tribunals to determine whether the detainees were enemy combatants. One of the Uighurs, a man named Hassan Anvar, explained in a written statement to the tribunal why he went to a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan before being captured and handed over to the U.S.

"I went there so I could train to fight against the Chinese, not against the Americans," Anvar said. "I have no reason to fight against the U.S."

Most of the Uighurs had similar explanations. They were either fleeing or resisting Chinese government repression in their homeland in China's northwest Xinjiang province. At most, they said, they had a few hours of training on an AK-47 rifle.

It was this explanation and a lack of other evidence that finally convinced the U.S. government that the Uighurs were, in official parlance, "no longer enemy combatants."

Beijing: Detainees Are Anti-China Terrorists

Li Wei is a counterterrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank in Beijing. He has studied the transcripts of the tribunal hearings, and he says the U.S. decision smacks of a double standard.

"What would the American government think if China sheltered people who threatened America's national security? They would probably see it as a provocation towards the U.S.," he says.

Li says the men are all members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, which Beijing and Washington have listed as a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban. Critics say the U.S. agreed to list ETIM as a terrorist group in order to secure Beijing's acquiescence to its invasion of Iraq. Lawyers representing the Uighurs say this was also the U.S. government's motivation in allowing Chinese interrogators to question the Uighurs in Guantanamo.

The U.S. will probably ignore Beijing's request to send the Uighurs back to China, for fear they might be imprisoned and tortured there.

"What is completely laughable is that the Americans have already tortured detainees at Guantanamo," says Li, "but then they say that these detainees might be tortured if returned to other countries."

Uighurs: Fight For Freedom From Authoritarianism

That the U.S. may be willing to harbor men who intended to fight China says a lot about the mistrust and political differences between the two nations, and the tentative nature of their cooperation on counterterrorism.

Gardner Bovingdon is an expert on the Uighurs at Indiana University in Bloomington. He says that Uighur political views run the gamut from Islamism to nationalism, peaceful to violent resistance, and autonomy to independence. But Beijing commonly lumps all of these views under its definition of terrorism.

"The war on terror dramatically changed the playing field for anti-state movements around the world, because it provided an opportunity for even very oppressive governments to label anti-state movements of any sort as terrorist movements," he says.

Alim Seytoff, a former Uighur official in Xinjiang, is now secretary general of the Uighur American Association.

"We are one of those peoples who became terrorists for demanding our rights from the authoritarian Chinese government," he says.

His group portrays Uighurs in a way that appeals to American concepts of "freedom fighters" and minority rights.

"We expect American support on this side, to put more pressure on the Chinese government so that the Chinese government will respect our culture, our language, our way of life, and also respect the so-called Uighur autonomy," Seytoff says.

Seytoff notes that the plight of the Uighurs is similar to that of China's Tibetan minority, but with several key differences. One is that the Tibetans are Buddhists, while the Uighurs are Muslims, which has increased post-Sept. 11 suspicions of associations with terrorism. The other is that while India and Nepal have given shelter to Tibetan refugees, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations have repatriated Uighurs to China, where some have been executed.

Economics, Geopolitics Override Other Concerns

Some Uighurs have hoped that the U.S. might intervene in Xinjiang the way it helped Albanians in Kosovo a decade ago.

But Bovingdon says U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in China outweigh any such possibility.

"The executive, I will venture to say, will never do anything to put pressure on China actually to change the autonomy regime in Xinjiang, and it will certainly never do anything like what the United States did in Kosovo," he says.

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