Guantanamo Uyghurs' Release Blocked

A U.S. Appeals court temporarily blocks the release of 17 ethnic Uyghurs held for almost seven years at Guantanamo Bay.

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The court house in Washington DC where, on October 7, 2008, a U.S. District Judge ruled that 17 Uyghurs held in Guantanamo Bay must be freed because they are no longer considered enemy combatants.
Photo: RFA
Updated Oct. 9

WASHINGTON—A federal appeals court in the U.S. capital has temporarily blocked the release 17 ethnic Uyghur detainees held at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay camp without charge since 2001.

The ruling Wednesday, by the U.S. Appeals Court here, freezes an order earlier this week by a federal judge who said the Bush administration was wrong to keep holding the men because it lacked evidence against them.

They knew that there was only a 50 percent chance that they would be released."
Uyghur translator Rushan Abbas

The men, all members of the Muslim Uyghur minority concentrated in China's northwesternmost region, Xinjiang, were cleared for release in 2004 but could face persecution if they are repatriated to China, according to U.S. officials and human rights groups.

Sabin Willet, a lawyer representing the group, said it could be weeks or months until the detainees' fate is decided.

The Court of Appeals has requested legal briefs from both sides by Oct. 16, Willet said. "That will push out the stay by at least two weeks." A stay of the trial judge's order during the entire appeal process could delay the men's release by six months or more, he said.

"There is a high risk that the longer-term stay will be granted as well," Willet said. "We came within hours of release," he said, adding that U.S. marshalls had been sent to Guantanamo Bay on Wednesday and were to have transferred the Uyghur detainees on Thursday.

On hearing of the initial order for their release, the detainees "were reserved in the sense that they'll believe it when they see it. No judge had ever ordered them released before," Willet said.

Lower-court ruling

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina had ruled that the Uyghurs must be freed because they are no longer considered enemy combatants.

"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful," Urbina said. He ordered their release by Friday in Washington, and he also set a hearing for next week to determine where they should be settled.

In a statement, the White House said it "strongly" disagreed with the judicial order and would seek emergency measures to stop and subsequently reverse it, on grounds that it would create a legal precedent for the release of other detainees "including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning" the Sept.11, 201 attacks on New York and Washington.

Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, welcomed the judge's order earlier this week and called it a victory for millions of Uyghurs inside China, some of whom Beijing has labeled terrorists committed to violent separatism.

"The Chinese government is trying to portray all Uyghurs as terrorists just because there are Uyghurs detained in Guantanamo. They try to classify any kind of fight by Uyghurs as terrorist activity, and they are trying to exterminate our ethnic group," Kadeer said.

Terrorism alleged

Several of the Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo Bay were living in camps in Afghanistan in 2001 when airstrikes drove them across the border to Pakistan, where they were taken captive and turned over to U.S. forces.

The men were held in a military prison in Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years. Cleared for release in 2004, the U.S. government has been unable to find them a home.

Rebiya Kadeer, seen here with her husband in front of the court on October 7, said: "Today we heard a voice from the court saying that Uyghurs are not terrorists."
Photo: RFA
Beijing has demanded the repatriation of all Uyghurs held at the U.S. Naval prison in Cuba, and most countries who might otherwise take them in fear diplomatic reprisals.

The Chinese government says the men are members of the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing and Washington regard as a terrorist organization. Beijing blames ETIM for a series of violent attacks inside China in recent years.

Translator’s view

Rushan Abbas worked as a Uyghur translator for the U.S. government in 2002-03, when the Uyghurs were first taken to Guantanamo Bay. She now translates periodically for the men’s lawyers. Abbas said their living conditions had improved since the men were deemed not to be enemy combatants.

“It was great to see them in much better conditions,” Abbas said of her visit to Guantanamo this week. “They were finally walking around freely. Some of them were exercising, some were doing their laundry, and others were simply sitting and enjoying the view of the ocean."

“They were excited to see me,” she said. “They said, ‘We can finally invite you in to speak with us!’” It was Abbas who explained to the men on Tuesday the lower-court order requiring the government to release them, and she described them as initially incredulous at the news.

“When they first heard the news of [Judge] Urbina’s decision, they couldn’t believe their ears. They were speechless for a couple of minutes. After seven years they didn’t expect that they would ever receive justice from the U.S. court system. You could really see the optimism in their faces, and by the time I left they were calling, ‘See you in court!’”

Defense lawyers also explained the likelihood of a government appeal and freeze on the order to release them, she said. “They knew that there was only a 50 percent chance that they would be released,” she said, adding that lawyers had also explained that they would remain in more hospitable quarters regardless whether their release was temporarily blocked.

Abbas said the Uyghur detainees were initially happy to be in U.S. custody but lost faith over time in the American legal system.

“At the beginning they were so excited to be in U.S. custody because they thought of the U.S. as the one and only country that helps to defend the human rights of weak people. They had very high expectations,” she said.

“When they were first turned over to U.S. custody they were told over and over again that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and that they would be sent to a third country very soon. But they kept hearing the same thing over and over again, and they began to lose faith in the U.S. system… They would keep hearing that they were innocent, but no action would be taken.”

Some sent to Albania

Five Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo Bay were released and given refuge by the Albanian government in 2006, despite protests from Beijing.

One of the detainees sent to Albania, Ababehir Qasim, said earlier that the men would have preferred to remain in custody in Guantanamo rather than return to China.

“Sometimes we thought that if that were the only option, instead of going back to China we would be better off staying there [in Guantanamo]... Going back to China would more than double the suffering of the Uyghur people’s spirits,” Qasim said.

“So our people wouldn’t suffer, we thought that staying at Guantanamo would be better. The time it took to apply for political asylum became longer and longer, and we heard from our lawyer that the Chinese government was pressuring other governments not to accept us. Naturally, we tried to comfort each other,” he said.

Chinese position

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang has said that Beijing wants the men sent back.

“China has urged the U.S. to repatriate these Chinese terrorist suspects to China on many occasions. We hope the U.S. will take our position seriously and repatriate these persons to China sooner rather than later,” he said.

Uyghurs twice enjoyed short-lived independence after declaring the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, and many oppose Beijing’s rule in the region.

Chinese officials have said extremists among the region’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghur population plotted terrorist strikes during the Beijing Olympics.

Original reporting by RFA's Uyghur service and Joshua Lipes. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Produced and edited in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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