A new documentary about 22 Uyghurs held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay highlights the “injustices” they endured for more than a decade as well as the alleged discrimination faced by the ethnic minority group as a whole in China, according to the film’s director and a movie participant.
Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, which premiered earlier this month at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema, tells the story of the former Uyghur inmates, some of whom were held at the facility in southeastern Cuba for 12 years, even though they were not convicted of any crime.
Speaking following the Oct. 10 premiere, director Patricio Henriquez said he had been moved to make the film to draw attention to the plight of the Uyghur detainees during their ordeal.
“I was interested in making a documentary against injustices,” he told the audience.
“I was deeply affected by the story of the Guantanamo Uyghurs, so I decided to make this documentary.”
The 22 men were all from northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and had been captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 U.S. terror attacks.
They said they had fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to escape persecution in their homeland, but the two countries detained them on security grounds and handed them over to the United States.
Rushan Abbas, an American of Uyghur heritage who had served as a translator for the former inmates, said that their detention was reminiscent of the fates of other Uyghurs who had sought greater freedom from heavy-handed rule in China.
“We have countless numbers of Uyghurs who are in jail in China as political prisoners, including Professor Ilham Tohti and Uyghur-Canadian Huseyin Jelil … who are serving life sentences for crimes that they did not commit,” she told the audience.
Moderate Uyghur scholar Tohti was sentenced last month on charges of “separatism” after questioning China’s policies in Xinjiang, though rights groups contend he was simply exercising his constitutional right to free expression.
Jelil, who was arrested in Uzbekistan and extradited to China in 2006, is imprisoned on charges of “terrorism” in Liudawan Jail in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region.
Members of the audience at the premiere said that the film had helped them gain a better understanding of the Uyghur community in China and why the 22 men chose to flee the country.
One audience member said that he had initially sided with the Canadian government when it refused to accept some of the Uyghurs in Guantanamo, but that he had changed his mind after seeing the film.
“Now I believe that we should accept as many suffering Uyghurs as we can, [especially] since China has refused to release Canadian citizen Huseyin Jelil,” he said.
The U.S. had refused to return the Guantanamo Uyghurs to China, saying they could face retribution from authorities there, but Washington was also reluctant to resettle them in the United States despite appeals from exile Uyghur rights groups.
The last three Uyghurs held at Guantanamo Bay were released and sent to Slovakia in December after 12 years in custody without charge.
Of the other 19 Uyghurs held in Guantanamo, four were sent to Bermuda, five went to Albania, six to Palau, two to Switzerland, and two to El Salvador.
China opposed any countries accepting the Uyghurs, claiming they are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China, the United Nations, and the United States regard as a terrorist organization.
Abubekri Qassim, one of the five Uyghurs sent to Albania from Guantanamo in 2006, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that he was pleased with the way the film had brought the plight of Uyghurs in China to international attention.
“[Appearing in this film] gave us the chance to promote the Uyghur cause,” he said in an interview after the documentary’s premiere.
“Through my story, I can tell the world that about China’s colonial regime [in Xinjiang], the Uyghurs’ struggle and their issues surrounding independence,” said Qassim, who was interviewed in the film.
Many Uyghurs have tried to leave Xinjiang following an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of tough policies in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year antiterrorist campaign in the region in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd will be shown at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 19-30, and was nominated into the event’s competition for full-length documentary.
Reported by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Rukiye Turdush. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.