A'del Abdu Al-Hakim's sister had no idea where her brother was.
Since 2001 neither she, nor his family in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwest China, has even known whether he was still living.
Only recently did Al-Hakim discover that not only was he was alive, he's still being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo. She found out when she heard the news about his federal trial in Washington, D.C.
In a telephone interview with Radio Free Asia's Uyghur news service, she said “I did not know he was still alive.” She said she could not even tell her parents in the XUAR that their son was still alive for fear of being overhead on the telephone by Chinese authorities. (Out of fear from reprisals from the Chinese government, she did not want her name, voice or location broadcast by RFA.)
Hakkim's sister spoke to RFA from the country where she lives in exile with her three children. She said her husband is in jail in Urumchi, the capital of the XUAR, and another brother is also incarcerated in Xinjiang province.
Uyghurs constitute a distinct Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkistan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1940s but have remained under Beijing’s control since 1949.
The Chinese government has labeled Uyghurs who engage in political or religious dissent "terrorists." International human rights groups have accused China of using the global war on terrorism as an excuse to prevent Uyghurs from opposing its rule.
According to an Amnesty International report from July 2004, "Anyone in the XUAR found passing information to the outside world about human rights abuses is at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and other serious human rights violations."
Among Uyghur refugees and asylees living in other countries, fear for the safety of relatives still living in the XUAR is common.
"If one family member is in jail for political reasons, the rest of the family is in trouble...some of them have difficulties finding work, communications with friends and neighbors are under watch, others are reluctant to be associated with you," said one Uyghur political asylee in the United States.
A'del Abdu Al-Hakim, 31, and Abu Bakker Qassim, 36, both Muslims and ethnic Uyghurs from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), continue to be held at Guantanamo, despite the difference in their circumstances from the 500 other detainees, and others who have been cleared of war crimes.
In March 2005, the men were among a dozen who were cleared of being enemy combatants but who continue to be held in custody. In the case of the Uyghurs, the U.S. government has said it cannot send them back to China because of its history of persecuting Muslims, and no other country will accept them.
Until their fate and ultimate destination can be decided, they remain detained at Guantanamo.
Lawyers for Qassim and Al-Hakim went before a U.S. federal judge this week to seek the release of the pair. According to a report in the Boston Globe , Sabin Willett, a Boston-based lawyer who volunteered to aid the men, argued, "They are not soldiers. They are not criminals. They are just Uyghur people."
Willett said the men both left home before the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001 to flee persecution in China. They were arrested by Pakistani police and turned over to the U.S. military as Al Qaeda suspects, then transferred to Guantanamo.
In an interview with RFA in August 2004, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "The Uyghurs are a difficult problem and we are trying to resolve all issues with respect to all detainees at Guantanamo.
The Uyghurs are not going back to China, but finding places for them is not a simple matter. We are trying to find places for them, and, of course, all candidate countries are being looked at."
Original reporting in Uyghur by Omer Kanat. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced for the Web in English by Maggy Sterner.