Future Uncertain for Chinese Held at Guantanamo
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Earlier this month at Guantanamo, officials released a group of Chinese men two full years after they had been cleared of any involvement in terrorism. Their release holdup, where to send them. China still considers the men a threat, so authorities wouldn't send them there. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
On May 5th, the Pentagon issued a single-page statement that said five detainees had been released from Guantanamo Bay after four years of imprisonment. It didn't give the men's names, but it did say they were ethic Uighurs, a minority Muslim group in northwestern China.
About two years ago, the military had deemed the men no longer enemy combatants, which meant by rights they were free to leave Guantanamo. But the Bush administration wouldn't send them back to China because of genuine fears the men would be persecuted or tortured.
Sam Witten, the acting director in the State Department's Office of War Crime Issues, says the U.S. approached more than a hundred countries trying to find the Uighurs a home.
Mr. SAM WITTEN (Acting Director, Office of War Crime Issues): The United States tried over a period of a couple of years to find an appropriate country to resettle the Uighurs.
NORTHAM: But while the State Department was searching for a new home for the men, defense lawyers were working to get them released to the United States. Attorney Sabin Willet says the case was due to come before a federal appeals court on Monday, May 8th.
Mr. SABIN WILLET (Attorney): And the business day before that, Friday, at 4:30 in the afternoon, the government called up to say that the men had been sent to Albania.
NORTHAM: Willet immediately flew to Albania to see his clients. He says they're being held in a refugee center, which has barred windows and barbed wire skirting the perimeter.
Mr. WILLET: Albania is a very poor choice, because there is no Uighur expatriate community there at all. Indeed, they haven't been able to find a human being in Albania who speaks Uighur who could help interpret for their asylum applications.
NORTHAM: But Albania represents the best opportunity for the men's future says Sally Hodgkinson, the deputy director at the State Department's Office of War Crimes Issues.
Ms. SALLY HODGKINSON (Deputy Director, Office of War Crimes Issues): Albania, which does have at least that strong Muslim population, was willing to accept the Uighurs into their community and to provide them the opportunity to get work, to resettle, to blend in, to be able to practice their faith.
NORTHAM: But Albania's decision to accept the Uighurs has angered China, which immediately asked for their extradition. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., would not talk on tape, but it issued a statement saying the released Uighur detainees are not refugees. Instead, they are suspected terrorists, aligned with the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM.
Dru Gladney, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, says ETIM is a separatist Muslim group in the Xinjiang area of northwestern China.
Professor DRU GLADNEY (University of Hawaii): They claim that these men support that organization. There's little proof to bear that out, and they feel that any Uighur who really has a complaint against China is somehow linked to this organization, which they also claim supports al-Qaida.
NORTHAM: Gladney says there's reason to worry if the Uighurs are sent back. Since 2001, the Chinese government has been cracking down hard on Uighurs living in the oil and mineral-rich area of Xinjiang. The Albanian ambassador to the U.S., Alexander Selebanda(ph), issued a statement saying Albania is certain the Uighurs are not terrorists, and that China should produce evidence if it believes otherwise. Professor Gladney says the decision to accept the Uighurs has created a real diplomatic dilemma for Albania and maybe the U.S. as well.
Prof. GLADNEY: China and the United States have cooperated quite closely in the war on terrorism. The United States wants China's support on issues such as Iran, so they do not want to anger the Chinese over this situation.
NORTHAM: While the three countries continue the diplomatic route, the Uighurs are in Albania wondering about their future, says defense lawyer Willet.
Mr. WILLET: They were thrilled after years to finally be out of Guantanamo, but I think they were sort of stunned at the shores they'd washed up on. More so than that, I think that they're very frightened by the diplomatic furor that has arisen with the Chinese - very uncertain as to what the future holds.
NORTHAM: Willet says the Uighurs have applied for asylum. The State Department officials say they're certain those applications will be accepted. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.