Uighurs Pose Challenge in Guantanamo

Among the detainees being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are Uighurs, Turkic Muslims from northwest China. But the Bush administration is reluctant to return to China those who have already been declared non-enemy combatants, citing China's oppression of the Uighur minority and fears that they would be persecuted were they to return to China. Michele Norris talks with Ellen Bork, deputy director of the Project for the New American Century.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A federal judge is currently considering the fate of two men being held at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu Al-Hakim are Uighur. That's a Turkic Muslim minority that mainly lives in a far northwest region of China. A military tribunal has found that the two men were wrongly detained and should be released. But the US government doesn't want to send them back to China for fear of persecution, and it doesn't want to admit them to the US, so they remain in custody. District Judge James Robertson says he may order the two men removed from Guantanamo and brought to his courtroom in Washington, DC. Ellen Bork is deputy director of the Project for the New American Century; that's a conservative foreign policy institute. She writes about the case in The Weekly Standard.

Ms. ELLEN BORK (Deputy Director, Project for the New American Century): The Bush administration does not want to return them to China, because China has a campaign of repression against Uighurs. The administration, to their credit, does not want to return them, but is looking for other countries that would accept them. I think we should allow them to settle here.

NORRIS: Now you argue that the US shouldn't ask another country to do something that it wouldn't do itself. What are the arguments against them staying in the US?

Ms. BORK: I don't think it's so much a question of the Uighurs themselves, but the administration having--or at least a spokesman having called Guantanamo a place for the worst of the worst. You can see that some citizens might justifiably, you know, have fears about settling Guantanamo detainees, and it would take an extraordinary effort from the highest levels for the administration to explain that the men had been declared non-enemy combatants and to make a case for them to be welcomed into the United States. I think the United States and the American people are capable of doing that, and I hope we do.

NORRIS: Ellen, if we could just take a step back, what were the circumstances of their incarceration?

Ms. BORK: Well, it's quite interesting. The amount of information available to someone like me is quite limited. A lot of my information comes from a declaration made to the court by their lawyer. He recently had the opportunity to interview them, and they told him their stories, in which they say they were arrested in Pakistan, that they were trying to get to Turkey, which has a substantial Uighur population, where they could work. But through a complicated itinerary and refusal of visas, they were unable to get there, and did end up in Pakistan. And there are any number of other Uighurs also whose transcripts suggest similar kinds of cases of people finding themselves in Pakistan or, indeed, in Afghanistan, which makes it very interesting.

NORRIS: A military tribunal has looked at their case. They found that the men were wrongly incarcerated. They ordered--the tribunal ordered them released. What would happen to them if they returned to China?

Ms. BORK: Based on the Chinese campaign against the Uighurs and based on some of the men's comments about China, I think we could fear the worst, that they might be imprisoned, they might be executed. The campaign against the Uighurs has been well-documented. It began well before early on in the 1990s, but intensified after September 11th, when China sought to identify the problems it has with its own treatment of the Uighur population with the war on terrorism.

NORRIS: There are reportedly almost two dozen Uighurs at Guantanamo. What's their status, and why have these two men been singled out for release?

Ms. BORK: These two men, I think, are the first of several who've had their cases, their attempts to successfully win habeas corpus, or release, entertained in the courts. It's a bit complicated to know exactly how many other non-combatant Uighurs there are, but some reporting has estimated it at about at least half of about two dozen.

NORRIS: As I understand it, if Judge James Robertson does order that these men be removed from Guantanamo, that would be the first case, the first order for that kind of...

Ms. BORK: That's my understanding as well.

NORRIS: ...transfer. What would the potential impact of that decision be?

Ms. BORK: I think it would show the administration really trying to make all the various important distinctions that it has to make to persuade the international community and people who are critical of a lot of their actions that when it comes to due process and when it comes to understanding different causes that are being fought in the world today that it can make these important distinctions.

NORRIS: Ellen, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. BORK: Thank you.

NORRIS: Ellen Bork is the deputy director for the Project for the New American Century.

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