|Albania: Getting Out of
Gitmo - ( Jan 27 2009 )
|On May 5, 2006, a plane took off from Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, with five shackled men inside. They landed at
an airport in southern Europe and were given a new set
of clothes, but little information.
“There were 20 to 30 soldiers inside the airplane,” says
former detainee Abu Bakker Qassim. “Our hands and feet
were tied by chains. The first thing we saw was
The men were members of a Muslim ethnic minority group
from western China called Uighurs. But they now found
themselves driven through the streets of a city that
most of them had never heard of -- Tirana, Albania --
where FRONTLINE/World reporter Alexandra Poolos arrived
in the summer of 2008 to track them down.
The first man she met, Abu Bakker Qassim, led her to the
building where he and the others had been taken after
“When I first arrived,” says Abu Bakker, “they brought
me to this center behind me. It is the political asylum
center of Albania. We arrived at about midnight. After I
arrived, I spent a year and a half of my life here.”
When the local news heard about the arrival of Abu
Bakker and his friends at the refugee center, they
became a big story in Albania. People were worried that
these men were Al Qaeda terrorists. Under scrutiny, Abu
Bakker and the others struggled to make sense of it all.
“Getting caught up in international terrorism, being
taken to Guantanamo, then becoming the focus of the
world as an evil person -- this was beyond my wildest
thoughts,” says Abu Bakker. “It was a punishment of
destiny that we went through.”
The story of the Uighurs’ unimaginable odyssey began in
an even less well-known place: Xinjiang, a remote area
of western China, where Abu Bakker and the others grew
The Uighurs consider Xinjiang their homeland, but the
long-standing tension between this Muslim minority and
the Chinese government dominates daily life.
In Xinjiang, Abu Bakker made a living as a
leatherworker, and at age 26, he married. A few years
later, in mid-2000, he made the critical decision that
would leave him exiled in Albania: He headed out of
Xinjiang to look for work.
Leaving was difficult, as his wife was now pregnant. He
told her he’d be back in six months, but the trip didn’t
go as planned.
From his home in Xinjiang, Abu Bakker headed southwest.
Running low on money, he stopped in a Uighur village in
Afghanistan. It was a decision that left him in one of
the worst spots in the world after the 9/11 attacks.
The United States had just begun bombing the Al Qaeda
stronghold in Tora Bora, where Abu Bakker and the other
Uighurs were staying.In the confusion that followed,
U.S. forces pursued hundreds of Al Qaeda suspects who
fled the bombings, but among them were many others whose
identities were less clear.
Cash bounties offered by U.S. forces encouraged local
villagers to turn in as many people as they could
capture. And this is what Abu Bakker and two dozen other
Uighurs say happened to them.
John Kiriakou, a top CIA official in Pakistan after
9/11, describes the Americans’ dilemma. “If a Pakistani
or Afghan villager comes up to you with a guy he has
tied up and says, ‘This is a terrorist; I caught him in
my village,’ what are you going to do?” he says. “Maybe
he is a terrorist.”
Kiriakou says the only way to sort out the captives was
to send them to Guantanamo.
“We viewed it as a place where you had the luxury of
time. You had a staff of linguists, and you could spend
quality time with each one of these prisoners,
interviewing them and getting to the bottom of each one
of these stories,” he says.
Abu Bakker and the others arrived at Guantanamo in the
spring of 2002.
“It was not normal to be taken somewhere in the middle
of the sea and put in solitary iron cells,” says Abu
Bakker. “I figured I must have been charged with a
severe crime. I was totally desperate and hopeless.”
Rushan Abbas was a Uighur from California brought into
Guantanamo to translate for the interrogations of Abu
Bakker and the others.
“Before I went to meet the detainee, I thought this
[must be a] radical jihadist. I was afraid he might be
really disrespectful to me, or he may not even want to
talk to me,” says Abbas.
“At the beginning, I felt that my mission was
important,” she says. “I was doing something really
important to help the government to sort through these
people and make a decision.”
But as the Uighur interrogations stretched on, Abbas
“After about six, seven months, I realized that the
mission is becoming useless -- especially my
translations. I felt that the interrogators already got
what they wanted to know,” Abbas says.
Interrogators asked again and again if the men had
received any type of training from Al Qaeda or the
Taliban. Finally, after months of questioning, the
military became convinced of the Uighurs’ story that
China was their foe, not the United States.
“The Uighur people in Afghanistan, they’re trying to
fight back the Chinese government, trying to get back
our independence,” Uighur detainee Yusuf Abbas said
during special hearings at the camp. “We [would] never
fight back to U.S. forces or coalition forces.”
At the State Department, Pierre-Richard Prosper was put
in charge of the Uighur cases.
“It became clear to us who these Uighurs were,” he says.
“In fact, that they were not part of the Al Qaeda
network. We decided that there were many of them that
could actually be released or transferred from
But the men presented a unique dilemma for Prosper. The
United States did not regard the Uighurs as a threat,
but the Chinese saw them as terrorists.
“We looked into sending them back to China,” Prosper
says. “And the more we examined it, the more complicated
the question became. We spent years on this issue. Years
trying to find a home for them. We probably started the
process when I was there in late 2002, 2003. When I
left, at the end of 2005, the Uighurs were still there.”
It was at this time that a Boston-based lawyer named
Sabin Willett volunteered to take on their cases and was
flown out to Guantanamo.
“We would meet our clients in a place called Camp Echo,
which was an old interrogation facility,” says Willet.
“And you’d be admitted into this through a series of
gates. It was hot. It was the middle of the summer. It’s
all gravel and then these huts. And in the back of your
mind is, ‘Am I about to meet a 9/11, you know,
But the Uighurs’ story, Willet found, was very
“One of the things that we did learn was that Abu Bakker
[and the other Uighurs] had been cleared by the military
and weren’t enemy combatants at all,” he says. “But this
clearance was held secret even from the court, and the
men had been sent back to the same cells as everybody
Willet decided to file a petition to free Abu Bakker and
four others who had been cleared by the military. In
late 2005, Willet won a minor victory in federal court;
the judge believed the Uighurs were unlawfully detained.
But he didn’t believe he had the power to set them free.
Willett appealed, but just a few days before the case
was to be heard, he got a phone call.
“It was my opposite number at the Justice Department,”
says Willet. “And he said, ‘We’re moving to dismiss your
appeal.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘Because they’re not
there anymore.’ I said, ‘Where did they go? They swim
somewhere?’ When he said they were in Albania, I said,
‘Bob, where are they really?’”
This is when the Uighurs were put on that night flight
to Tirana and then driven to their new home in exile.
The next day, Willet landed in Albania himself and found
Abu Bakker and the others where they’d been dropped off.
“I met them at the U.N. refugee camp,” says Willet.
“Reunion was wonderful. It was thrilling [for them] to
be out of Gitmo. But then reality sets in: They’re stuck
in Albania. Their families are in China. As an American,
you can’t look them in the eye and not feel embarrassed
about what’s happened to them.”
Vijay Padmanabhan was the State Department lawyer who
helped negotiate the release of Abu Bakker and the four
other Uighurs to Albania. “What do you do with people
that you pick up; they come into your custody, and they
can’t be returned home because of treatment issues?” he
says. “What are the options for them? And I think you’d
find there are very few options.”
Padmanabhan says that Albania and the United States have
a very positive relationship. “I think the Albanian
government made a decision,” he says, “for humanitarian
reasons, for political reasons, that it was in its best
interests to help the United States on this issue.”
It was a marriage of convenience. After years of a
controversial foreign policy, the Bush administration
had few friends left in the world. They turned to
Albania, one of the last countries where the United
States still had leverage.
Albania agreed to take five of the 22 Guantanamo Uighurs.
The following year, President Bush became the first
sitting U.S. president to visit the country. He was
greeted by cheering crowds.
Albanian foreign minister Lulzim Basha says that Albania
was trying to aid in the war on terror by taking the
detainees. He denies that they took the Uighurs as part
of a quid pro quo for U.S. aid.
“I wouldn’t say this was a trade-off. This -- just like
our presence in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan --
this is a sign of our will and our capacity to share the
responsibility in the coalition against terror,” Basha
But the Chinese weren’t happy. They began to pressure
the Albanians to hand back the Uighurs, whom they
labeled terror suspects.
Not long after, Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha met
with a Chinese delegation. He would not hand back Abu
Bakker and the others, but he also wouldn’t do anything
more to provoke the Chinese.
Despite requests, the Albanians would not take any of
the 17 Uighurs remaining at Guantanamo -- and neither
would anyone else.
“We actually have not sent Uighur detainees from
Guantanamo to any country other than Albania,” says
Vijay Padmanabhan. “Many other countries, almost every
other country in the world has been approached with
respect to taking Uighur detainees, but no one has
actually agreed to take them.”
By mid-2006, the remaining Uighurs at Guantanamo had
been moved to a new facility. It was modeled after a
supermax prison and called Camp Six.
“The men call it the dungeon above the ground,” says
Willett. “It’s total isolation in a concrete bunker. So
you’re in a cell alone for 22 hours in the day. You
don’t have a companion, you don’t have a book, you don’t
have an iPod, you don’t have a television, you don’t
have a magazine. You don’t have anybody to talk to
“They started to crack up,” he says. “I mean, we’d go
and meet these guys, and our client Abdu Semet, one of
them, used to tell me that he was starting to hear
voices in his head. He was shaking when we saw him.”
“They became more withdrawn,” says translator Rushan
Abbas. “Quiet. Don’t say much. Don’t ask that many
questions. Negative about everything.”
Abbas had quit Guantanamo in 2003. Now she was back as
part of the defense team. They urged the Uighurs to keep
pressing their case through the courts. But the
remaining Uighurs had lost hope.
For one detainee, the moment of choice came when
conditions at the camp grew tougher, and the guards took
away his bed sheet.
“A few months earlier,” says Willet, “some other
prisoners had used bed sheets to commit suicide, having
despaired of ever getting out. So, he had no bed sheet.
And he wanted to know in our meeting, did we think his
having brought a habeas case was why they took away his
bed sheet. And we said no. But he was a little
skeptical. And so we get outside the cell, and our
interpreter, Rushan, says, ‘He said to drop the case.’
He said, ‘It’s not worth the bed sheet.’”
The election of President Barack Obama brought new hope
for the remaining detainees. President Obama has signed
an executive order to close the camp, but tough choices
remain about the fate of the detainees still there.
“You have to figure out what to do with the residual
population -- the people that we can’t find a way to
send home, and that we can’t prosecute,” says Vijay
“It’s fine to say ‘Close Guantananamo,’ but when a
senator or congressman says, ‘Okay, well that means the
person’s going to be let loose on the streets of Topeka,
Kansas,’ they’ll be opposed to actually letting that
happen,” Padmanabhan says. “So I think the new president
will have to ask himself some hard questions.”
Meanwhile, as the fate of their friends hangs in the
balance, the freed Uighurs have been trying to make new
lives for themselves. They’ve found a local mosque to
attend, and they look to its imam for guidance on how to
“When we first met them in the beginning, we were very
skeptical,” says their Albanian imam. “But as we were
able to get acquainted, we found they were not here to
cause any trouble. And now we are very comfortable with
“We’ve tried to help them and to stand close by them,”
he says. “To be like a family to them. And to give them
advice on religion and community issues.”
Their real families are back in China, but most of the
men are resigned to never seeing them again. Two of the
Uighurs have given their wives permission to remarry,
but not Abu Bakker. Not long ago, his wife sent him the
video of their wedding. He says he watches it to
“I had love. I had family. Our life was beautiful. Now
it’s devastated,” he says.
“It’s been eight years that we are living apart,” Abu
Bakker says. “And for the past two years we just
exchange simple words over the phone. We are just
getting along like acquaintances.”
In the fall of 2008, all of the Uighurs at Guantanamo
were removed from the Pentagon’s enemies list.
Last month, in a gesture of goodwill, a few European
countries stepped forward to say they would help
resettle some Guantanamo prisoners.
Meanwhile, for some of the Uighurs, this will be the
start of their eighth year of captivity.