Uyghurs in Palau 'Cut Off'

Members of a Chinese ethnic minority newly freed from U.S. custody say they can't communicate with friends and family.
2009-11-02
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Four Uyghurs recently released from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay are pictured in the kitchen of their new home in Koror, on the island of Palau, Nov. 2, 2009.
Four Uyghurs recently released from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay are pictured in the kitchen of their new home in Koror, on the island of Palau, Nov. 2, 2009.
AFP

WASHINGTON—Six Uyghur ex-detainees from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay and sent to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean say they have been unable to contact family and friends in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang since their arrival.

"We haven't been able to talk to our family members yet," Anwar Hasan said in a telephone interview from the Pacific island nation of Palau, where he was transferred with five other Uyghur men after spending nearly eight years behind bars.

The former prisoners were among 22 Uyghurs—a Turkic-speaking minority from the Chinese-ruled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region—living at a self-contained camp in Afghanistan when the U.S.-led invasion of the country began in October 2001.

"We have stayed eight years in the jail ... Our biggest desire on getting out of the jail was to talk to our family members and let them know we are alive and give them some peace of mind," said Hasan.

Hasan said that strict Chinese government controls on Internet and phone communication with the Uyghurs' homeland following ethnic violence in July have prevented them from doing so.

A warm welcome

Hasan, together with fellow former detainees Ahmad Tourson, Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman, Edham Mamet, Adel Noori and Dawut Abdurehim, arrived in Palau on Saturday, to a warm welcome from the country's president, Johnson Toribiong.

"The president of Palau greeted us and met with us when we got here," Hasan said. "He is a very easy-going and pleasant man. Everybody here is very good to us."

But he said he and the other Uyghurs still feel imprisoned by circumstance.

"Even though we are free now, in one sense our situation isn't too different from when we were in jail, as the Chinese government has blocked all communication channels to our homeland," he said.

"I think this is because the Chinese government does not want the outside world to know what happened in our homeland so they can strike harder against our people," Hasan said.

"Now, this has became our main concern."

Palau said in June that it would accept all 17 of the remaining Uyghurs held in extrajudicial detention in Guantanamo "as a humanitarian gesture."

Matthew Olsen, executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force charged with reviewing the detainee cases, said the United States is "grateful to the Republic of Palau for its assistance in the resettlement of these individuals."

President Barack Obama's administration is struggling to meet a self-assigned deadline to close down Guantanamo Bay by January.

Five Uyghur captives were cleared of all suspicion in 2004 and transferred to Albania in 2006. The remaining 17 were cleared of terrorism charges in 2008.

'Eight years of our lives'

Hasan said he and his companions had very mixed feelings on the occasion of their release.

"We spent eight years of our lives over there for nothing," he said.

"There was no reason given for that kind of treatment, and even thinking about the experience causes great pain," he said.

"On the other hand, when the Chinese government demanded that the U.S. hand us over to them, the American government refused to give us to them, so when we think about that, we are very happy to be here," Hasan said.

But Palau won't be the final destination for the men, who have been caught up by political forces far beyond their control.

"We are living here temporarily," Hasan said. "So our main concern is, where is our next stop? When will it happen? How soon? All of these questions are bothering us right now."

The six prisoners transferred to Palau and the seven Uyghurs now remaining at Guantanamo—where 215 "war on terror" suspects are still detained—have applied to be released in the U.S.

Their case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early next year.

Last year, a federal judge ordered that the men be released to U.S. soil, where a large, multifaith community had offered to take them in.

Since the Guantanamo facility was opened in January 2002 under former president George W. Bush, over 550 detainees have been transferred to other countries.

Original reporting in Uyghur by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by Dilshat Muhemmed. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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