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:

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.

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.