Relief funds help Guantanamo Uighur move forward

Corrected 2/4/10

An attorney with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel contacted me two months ago to ask for my assistance on behalf of one of her firm’s Uighur clients who had recently been released from Guantanamo to Palau.

Ahmad Abdulahad in Palau after almost eight years in Guantanamo. (Photo courtesy of Kramer Levin).

Ahmad Abdulahad in Palau after almost eight years in Guantanamo. (Photo courtesy of Kramer Levin)

Kramer Levin’s client, a 38-year-old Uighur named Ahmad Abdulahad, was captured in Afghanistan soon after the American invasion in October 2001. His left leg was severely injured during an air strike at Qalai Janghi Prison near Mazar-E-Sharif, where he was being held prior to his transfer to Guantanamo.

Ahmad’s leg was amputated soon after his arrival in Guantanamo, and a prosthetic device was supplied by the U.S. military. The prosthesis was never fitted properly. As a result, Ahmad’s mobility has been very limited and he experiences chronic pain. Whether he is walking, sitting, or standing, the prosthesis rubs against his residual limb. This causes blistering, which is aggravated in the hot, humid climate of Palau.

Ahmad’s story

Ahmad was born in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, a western province of the People’s Republic of China.  As an ethnic Uighur (a Turkic Muslim minority), he suffered severe repression under China’s rule. Ahmad is an educated man with a wife and three children. He left his home to escape persecution in 2000. He traveled to Kyrgyzstan and later to Pakistan. Like many Uighur refugees, he finally settled in Afghanistan, the only Central Asian country where he was unlikely to face extradition to China.

Ahmad was living in Kabul at the time of the U.S. invasion. When the fighting moved closer to the city, he joined the crowds of civilians fleeing north. Although unarmed and unaffiliated with any of the warring factions, he was captured by the forces of the notorious warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and turned over to the Americans for a bounty of $5,000.

Now, eight years later, Ahmad is finally a free man. Despite the terrible adversities that he has faced, he is extraordinarily motivated to begin a new life, to find employment, and to become self-sufficient. But he needs extensive medical care.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Uighur Blogger Still Held

Since July 8, Ilham Tohti, editor of the Web site Uighur Online and a professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing, has been held incommunicado by Chinese authorities. He was interrogated after posting articles on the site and his personal blog about a clash between members of China’s majority ethnic Han group and Uighurs in Guangdong Province on June 26.

The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group in China most of whom live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. For two decades now Chinese authoirities have been pursuing a campaign in the area against “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” in the process have diluting the Uighur population and severely restricting the civil and cultural rights of Uighurs. Ilham Tohti’s case is in no way isolated. Although authorities in XUAR set up a media center for foreign journalists in Urumqi during the recent violence, reporters have been prevented – by police, other security forces or even just people on the street – from reporting freely in the XUAR. One New York Times reporter described tour guides in Kashgar who refused to lead him around the city and translators who feared repercussions if they were to translate certain conversations. Clearly Chinese authorities fear what the people of Kashgar might say to journalists, but what’s even worse is that they’re causing residents in the XUAR to fear expressing their opinions.

All this repression suggests the unliklihood of an independent inquiry into the events last month in Xinjiang as well as open, fair trials for those who have been detained. Take action now for Ilham Tohti!

What's A Uighur?

Corrected 2/4/10

This question was part of the opening remarks in a talk given several years ago by one of the attorneys representing the Uighurs at Guantanamo. We didn’t know the answer. But since then we’ve learned a lot.

Over the past few years, information about the Guantanamo Uighurs has filtered out into the mainstream media. (After more than seven years, 13 Uighurs are still at Gitmo). While not exactly a household word, “Uighur” became something that people might have “heard something about somewhere.”

Now a frightful window has opened up on the Uighurs’ world in Western China. The ethnic violence that broke out this past weekend did not come out of nowhere. It came from years of brutal oppression. It erupted when Uighurs took to the streets (peacefully) to protest the stalled investigation into the deaths of two Uighur factory workers. The demonstration was violently suppressed, and the Uighurs fought back.

This is a Uighur woman desperate to find out what has happened to her husband and four brothers. The Chinese came into their home while they were eating dinner and took them away.

The Uighurs call their homeland – live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a vast, resource-rich region of central Asia which they sometimes refer to as East Turkistan.  Since it was annexed by China, it is formally known as the Xinjian Uyghur “Autonomous” Region. There is no “autonomy.” Its ‘autonomy’ is questionable. You can read all about it:

U.S. Obligation to Freed Gitmo Detainees

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Four Uighur former Guantanamo inmates are now in Bermuda, other detainees have been released to France, Chad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hungary, Italy and Palau appear to have joined the ranks of countries prepared to accept detainees cleared for release. The pace of releases finally seems to be picking up and that is a cause for optimism.

But, while groups like Amnesty are pleased to see these individuals finally released from wrongful detention, we are disturbed that there has been no public announcement that any of these individuals will receive compensation for their ill-treatment or any assistance from the United States in rebuilding their lives or coming to terms with their experiences.

Many of you reading this blog may feel that this is a side issue but it is not. International law requires the U.S. to provide remedy to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Consider for a moment what the men recently released have lost. They have lost seven years of their lives. Quite apart from the personal deprivation of liberty that is also seven years of lost earning potential – one fifth of a working life. Their families too have been without their primary breadwinner all this time.

Furthermore, what kind of future do they have to look forward to? They certainly haven’t had the opportunity to learn or develop a trade while in detention, nor are many of them returning to a society they know well. Some may not even speak the local language. However idyllic Bermuda may appear in press photographs, it is a world away from the Central Asian steppe the Uighurs are used to.

Some released inmates may be grappling with medical or mental health problems. Defense attorney, Jeffrey Colman, a thirty-five year veteran of the criminal justice system who has represented four GITMO inmates this week described the facility as:

“Unlike any other institution… there is a level of hopelessness unlike anything I have ever seen.”

We know 5 inmates have committed suicide since the camp opened and in March this year the Department of Defense reported that 34 inmates were on hunger strike. Such figures give some insight into the harrowing nature of the detainees’ experiences – yet no provision has been made to support their rehabilitation.

Closing Guantanamo is not in and of itself enough. We have a moral and legal obligation to aid the reintegration of former inmates back into society. These men have been convicted of no crime. In our system that means they are innocent. No ifs or buts.

Innocent men wrongly held for seven years have a right to compensation. The Obama administration can’t simply shove them out the gates of Camp Delta and forget about them. The United States must take responsibility for rebuilding lives it has ruined.

Why Are These People Dancing?

Pakistani lawyers dance outside the home of Chief Justice

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

It is Monday, March 16, 2009. These two lawyers are dancing in celebration outside the home of  Iftikhar Chaudhry , Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. Why? Because Chaudhry, who had been suspended in March 2007 by then president Pervez Musharraf, has finally been reinstated by the government.

Chaudhry had become an embarrassment to Musharraf’s government. Among his inconvenient rulings: he ordered the country’s Intelligence agency to admit that it was holding secret prisoners. Musharraf finally had had enough. He dismissed the Supreme Court and placed the judges under house arrest.

Luckily our president can’t dismiss the Supreme Court. The powers claimed by President Bush in the war on terror didn’t go that far, but they went far out in that direction. In Pakistan, the firing of the judges led to the unprecedented Lawyers’ Movement. In the U.S., President Bush’s claim that he could hold people indefinitely outside of any system of justice — be it U.S. military or civilian law or international law governing the treatment of prisoners of war — led to a lawyers’ movement here in the U.S. By claiming the right to act outside of the law, the Bush Administration unleashed a storm of litigation.

It took a couple of years, but American lawyers, using the painstaking processes available under U.S. law, finally gained access to Guantanamo. Three times, their cases have reached the Supreme Court.

1. Rasul v. Bush (2004) — The Court ruled that American courts have jurisdiction to consider legal appeals filed on behalf of foreign citizens held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo.

2. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) — The Court ruled that the tribunals being used to try prisoners at Guantanamo were unconstitutional, and that the Geneva Conventions and Uniform Code of Military Justice could be enforced by the Supreme Court.

3. Boumediene v. Bush (2008) — The Court ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo had the right to habeas corpus under the U.S. Constitution, and that the military commissions established by Congress in 2006 (following Hamdan) were an unconstitutional suspension of that right.

Each time, the Court has ruled against the Administration. But the gains have been slow and incremental. Congress has pushed back with legislation that President Bush signed into law. And each ruling has opened up new avenues of litigation.

This summer the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear yet another Guantanamo case. This time the case is brought by the Chinese Uyghurs, who have been detained for over seven years despite long ago being found to harbor no enmity whatsoever towards the U.S, having been found to be “not enemy combatants” by a federal court, and, last fall, having been ordered released into the U.S. by a federal judge.

Guantanamo is Obama’s problem now. He has pledged to close Guantanamo by January 2010. But how he will do that, and what will happen to the detainees, is still an open question. Of special concern is the fate of the detainees who, like the Uyghurs, are cleared for release but have nowhere to go. If this Supreme Court case goes forward, it could force the government’s hand. According to Lyle Denniston, founder of the Scotus blog which follows and discusses Supreme Court cases:

“What is at stake, ultimately, could be the fate of many if not most of the more than 240 prisoners still at Guantanamo, who might have to remain confined there or somewhere else even if the government decides that they are not dangerous enemies.”

The lawyers representing the Uyghurs have worked long and hard for these innocent men who need a home. And they just don’t stop fighting. If they win this one, if the Guantanamo Uyghurs finally come to live in the U.S. under the care of the Uyghur American families who are waiting to take them in, you will see dancing in the streets.

Guantanamo's Uighurs Coming to the US?

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder gave the first public indication that at least some of the Chinese Uighurs cleared for release from Guantanamo in September 2008, but unable to return home to China for fear of persecution, will be allowed to settle in the United States. His announcement followed the visit of the European Union’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove to US.

De Kerchove is believed to have delivered the blunt message to the Obama administration that, unless the US demonstrated its good faith by resettling the Uighurs on American soil, it was highly unlikely that any European country would be prepared to help in the dismantlement of the Guantanamo prison camp by accepting other discharged detainees.

The Uighurs were among 22 Chinese citizens of Uighur descent who were captured near Tora Bora towards the end of 2001. The circumstances of their capture is unclear although former detainee Abu Bakr Qasim has claimed they were handed over to US forces for a $5,000 a head bounty.

The men are alleged to be militant separatists affiliated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who had received weapons training at a camp in Afghanistan with the apparent objective of fighting against China for Uighur independence.

None took part in hostilities against the United States nor bore any apparent animosity towards the west. Indeed, Abu Bakr Qasim told reporters that he had expected the US to be sympathetic to his people’s cause.

In May 2006 five of the original group were released from Guantanamo and resettled in Albania although one, Adel Abdu Al-Hakim, has subsequently been allowed to relocate to Sweden.

The US government finally conceded in September 2008 that none of the remaining Uighurs in Guantanamo could be categorized as an ‘enemy combatant’ and in October the US District Court ordered the Uighurs released. They have been trapped in limbo ever since with no country prepared to offer them a home for fear of angering China.

The saga of the Uighars has only served to underline the comments made this week by Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a guest post on The Washington Note. Wilkerson lambasted the ‘utter incompetence’ of the battlefield intelligence screening process that saw so many individuals who posed no threat to US interests transferred to Guantanamo and proclaimed to the American public as ‘the worst of the worst’.

In Wilkinson’s words:

Several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released… But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Hundreds of detainees have been held in Guantanamo for an unconscionable length of time in defiance of international law and notions of due process. Wilkinson estimates that only two dozen or so could actually be considered terrorists. The rest have suffered long enough. The Obama administration must set an example and put right a wrong that has cast a long shadow over America’s global reputation. It can start by offering the Uighurs of Guantanamo a new home on American soil.

Watch "Getting Out of Gitmo" Tonight on PBS

Tonight (January 27) at 9pm ET PBS will premiere the new Frontline segment “Getting Out of Gitmo,” about the 17 Uighurs illegally detained at Guantanamo.  Check out the trailer here.

Afterward, be sure to take Amnesty International’s Urgent Action on behalf of the Uighurs and our 100 Days Action, calling on President Obama to:

  • Promptly charge Guantánamo detainees with recognizable criminal offenses or release them immediately;
  • Ensure that those detainees who are to be charged receive fair trials in US federal courts;
  • Ensure that an independent commission on US “war on terror” abuses is set up.

Learn more about the Uighur’s Guantanamo detention.

Obama to Close Gitmo

Barack Obama has announced that he will close Guantanamo. Throughout the world, this announcement will be understood as an introduction to a new kind of American leadership, a repudiation of the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and a return to diplomacy and the rule of law.

Guantanamo prison cell © US DoD

Guantanamo prison cell © US DoD

Closing Guantanamo will be a complicated process, which must be accomplished in phases. But the first step clearly is the settlement of the 50 or 60 detainees who have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go. These men have been called the “Guantanamo refugees.” Some of these men are stateless, but most of them simply can’t be returned to their home countries because their lives would be in danger there.

A number of European countries have recently indicated a willingness to take in some of the Guantanamo refugees. But the U.S. must also take some of them.

A group of 17 ethnic Uyghurs from western China have been at Guantanamo almost since its opening. From very early on, they were known to be innocent. In September 2008, a federal court officially cleared them of “enemy combatant” status. In October, Federal Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered them released into the U.S, where Uyghur-American families were waiting to take them in. Justice Department lawyers obtained a stay pending appeal to the Court of Appeals. The appeal was briefed and argued in late November. The Government argued that only the President has the power to order the transfer of detainees and their release into the U.S. The appeal has not yet been decided by the Court. As President, Obama should either dismiss the appeal and comply with Judge Urbina’s order or exercise his power as President to bring the Uyghurs to the U.S.

Portugal’s Bold Initiative Highlights U.S. Hypocrisy on Guantanamo

Last week Portugal offered to accept some Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release by the Pentagon but who cannot return to their home countries. In a letter to his counterparts in other European Union countries, Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado urged them to do the same. Portugal’s commendable initiative is based on a recognition that it is no longer acceptable for European governments to sit back and carp from the sidelines.

(c) US DoD

(c) US DoD

Closing Guantanamo simply cannot be accomplished without other governments’ assistance in resettling some of the detainees.  According to the New York Times, Luis Serradas Tavares, a legal adviser in Portugal’s foreign ministry, acknowledged that the Portuguese people probably would be hesitant to accept detainees who had been labeled dangerous terrorists by the U.S., but he added that his government was nevertheless willing to do so because “the U.S. has assured us that these people are the least dangerous people.”

It is past time for the U.S. to follow its own advice to European governments and Portugal’s example. In the case of 17 Chinese Uighurs, who belong to a persecuted ethnic, religious (Muslim), and linguistic minority in China, the U.S. continues to vehemently oppose efforts by their lawyers to get them admitted into the U.S. Most of the Uighurs have long been cleared for release, and they never should have been sent to Guantanamo in the first place.

In classic Orwellian fashion, the Pentagon has reclassified them as “no longer enemy combatants” (NLEC). There is a community of Uighurs in the Washington, DC, area that is fully prepared to assist the Uighur detainees, including by providing housing and employment assistance to help put these men on the path to becoming self-supporting. Releasing them into the United States clearly is the best option for them, as there are very few other places where there is already a well-established Uighur community that speaks the same language and can provide such a range of support services for these men.

However, the U.S. persists in keeping the Uighurs in a “Catch-22” bind by arguing both that (1) the Uighurs no longer pose a threat to U.S. national security but (2) they are inadmissible under U.S. immigration laws, which automatically deem foreign nationals who have received “weapons training” abroad to be dangerous. (At least some of the Uighurs allegedly received some training in the use of firearms in Afghanistan after they fled there from China.)

This matter is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The rest of the world is watching to see what the U.S. does about the Uighurs, whose plight Amnesty International has called a “monstrous absurdity.” As U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina found in October, the U.S. government has never produced a shred of credible evidence that the Uighurs in any way pose a danger to the U.S. As long as the U.S. continues to stubbornly insist on its internally contradictory argument, reluctance by other governments to follow Portugal’s example is likely to persist.