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Some of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba may trade their island prison for an island paradise. They are a small group of Chinese Muslims captured years ago. These Chinese separatists are not considered a threat to the U.S. They fear repression if they return to China, and other nations don't want them.
INSKEEP: But the Pacific island nation of Palau says it will welcome them to a temporary home. You can find aerial photos on the Web of an island that twists through the ocean like a string of emeralds. A move there would mark the latest twist on a journey for the men known as Uighurs.
NPR's Louisa Lim investigates the case of one detainee.
LOUISA LIM: 35-year-old Anwar Hassan has spent a fifth of his life behind bars in Guantanamo Bay -so long, in fact, he's learned to speak English while there. His odyssey began in 1999, when he left China after being tortured during a one-month jail term. He says he was imprisoned for his Muslim beliefs. He left for Kyrgyzstan, then Afghanistan and Pakistan. After 9/11 he was captured in a group of 18 Uighurs. One of them, Abu Bakkar Qassim, wrote they'd been sold by the Pakistani bounty hunters to the U.S. military like animals for $5,000 a head. By February 2002, Anwar Hassan was at Guantanamo. Uighur American lawyer Nury Turkel says the Uighurs had become a political football.
Mr. NURY TURKEL (Attorney): I used to think that the Uighurs are - particular the Uighurs in Guantanamo are the prisoners of international politics. But it forced me to believe that the Uighurs have become the prisoners of U.S. domestic politics.
LIM: A declassified FBI report says initially, American officials consider handing the Uighurs back to the Chinese in return for their support in the war on terror. But that didn't happen. Instead, in August 2002, the U.S. listed a little-known group, The East Turkistan Islamic Movement, as a terrorist organization. Many analysts believe this was the quid pro quo move to gain Chinese support for the war on terror. Lawyer George Clarke says that the Uighurs then have to fight charges of affiliation with the newly listed group.
Mr. GEORGE CLARKE (Attorney): At the time they were picked up, it hadn't even been named as a terrorist organization. And none of them had even heard about it before they went to Guantanamo. Their military training is similar to what - you know, I mean, a Boy Scout shooting cans at the county dump has got more military training than these guys had. You know, a couple of them fired an AK-47 for four or five rounds. I mean, it's ridiculous.
LIM: In September 2002, a Chinese delegation visiting Guantanamo was allowed to interrogate the Uighurs. One detainee said the Chinese used tactics such as sleep and food deprivation. Two-and-a-half years after arrival in Guantanamo, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal - or CSRT panel - found Anwar Hassan not to be an enemy combatant. So he was judged not to be affiliated with al-Qaida or a threat to the U.S. A few months later, that decision was reversed. I asked Anwar Hassan's lawyer George Clarke why.
Mr. CLARKE: This is a quote - and this is declassified, okay? "Inconsistencies will not cast a favorable light on the CSRT process or the work done by OARDEC."
LIM: So what does that mean? Can you translate it?
Mr. CLARKE: That means, basically, inconsistent. It is inconsistent, so we have to put them back. It won't shed a good light on the process if we don't flip him back to be an enemy combatant.
LIM: The same Pentagon memo said flipping Anwar Hassan's status would allow an opportunity to further exploit him in Guantanamo Bay. Court filings show after that, Anwar Hassan spent time in Camp Six, a supermax prison. He was in solitary confinement 22 hours a day, with his two hours of recreational time spent in a cage, often in the middle of the night. It wasn't until September 2008 that Anwar Hassan was yet again reclassified. Translator Rushan Abbas has interpreted for the Guantanamo Bay Uighurs over seven years.
Ms. RUSHAN ABBAS (Translator): Over the seven years witnessing their mood, it surprises me how patient these people are, how peaceful this people are.
LIM: On October 7th last year, a federal district court ordered the Uighurs to be released in the U.S. But this hasn't happened after an appeals court overturned the ruling. Speaking before the latest news was released, Abbas says the Uighurs have become used to disappointment.
Ms. ABBAS: That was a really happy time for them, and they thought they were going to be released very soon. But that didn't happen. Yes, it had been up and down from the beginning that they have been told they are going to be released and then it doesn't happen.
Lim: Now, after a worldwide search for somewhere to resettle the detainees, the tiny Pacific archipelago of Palau has announced it will accept them. As for Anwar Hassan, despite his seven years in Guantanamo, he's hopeful about the future. He's hoping to marry and have a family. He's looking forward, and he's hoping that one day soon, he'll be able to get on with the rest of his life.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.