Fri, Aug 18, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Uighurs caught in a political minefield a long way from home

A group of Muslims from China's Xinjiang Province, freed from Guantanamo, are unable to return home despite a ruling that they were not `enemy combatants'


Early on May 5, five Asian men who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay for years as dangerous terrorists, boarded a military transport plane at the US naval base there.

The men had just exchanged their prison garb for jeans, T-shirts and slip-on sneakers but were still in handcuffs as they boarded the plane, where they were shackled to bolts in the floor and surrounded by more than 20 armed soldiers. About 14 hours later, the plane landed in Albania, a poor Balkan nation eager to please Washington.

Interviews with lawyers and several officials in the US and elsewhere showed that the flight, to a freedom of sorts for the five men, involved intense behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity in Washington; Ottawa; Tirana, Albania; Beijing and elsewhere. It also held implications for a US Appeals Court, NATO and the relations of several European countries with China. And it underlined the difficulties the administration of US President George W. Bush has reducing the population of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as international calls for it to be closed increased.

The five men were Uighurs who had been captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They had traveled there from their homeland in Xinjiang Province, China, where the Uighur people, most of whom are Muslims, have fought a low-level insurgency against Beijing's rule for years.

For the group of five Uighurs, the transfer to Albania meant exchanging a military prison camp for a bleak and unpromising future in one of Europe's poorest countries where no one spoke their language. One of the men, Abu Bakker Qassim, said in an interview that, "I would rather be in a society where I can be with some of my countrymen, but where we are is better than Guantanamo."

For the Bush administration, one of the immediate results of the transfer was an opportunity to sidestep yet another court challenge to its detention policies.

Shortly after the five men landed in Albania's capital, and only minutes before the close of business in Washington on a Friday, the Justice Department filed a brief with a federal appeals court there. The brief asked the court to cancel a hearing on the next Monday on the Uighurs' challenge to their continued detention in Guantanamo Bay. They had been held there for more than a year after the military's special tribunal system had determined they were not "enemy combatants," the ostensible reason for their imprisonment.

A federal judge had ruled that the Uighurs' continued detention at Guantanamo was illegal and disgraceful, but he said he could not order them admitted to the US, as their lawyers had requested. The appeals court was considering that issue. The Bush administration has opposed allowing Guantanamo detainees into the US.

Upon learning the Uighurs were no longer at Guantanamo, the appeals court canceled the hearing.

A senior State Department official said in an interview that more than 100 countries had been approached about accepting the Uighurs but that only Albania did. Even though they were innocent, the official said, the five Uighurs could not be repatriated to China because Beijing regarded them as terrorists and the law prohibited sending prisoners to places where they might be persecuted.

The countries that had declined, including Washington's best European allies, did not want to antagonize China, officials said.

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