|Uyghurs sold out in the US -
( June 01 2009 )
By Peter Lee
Republican leaders in the United States appear eager to
hand President Barack Obama a political defeat and
diminish his prestige and domestic and international
clout - at the cost of the continued detention of 17
Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo in Cuba.
By accident or design, the US Republicans were able to
forestall the imminent release of the Uyghurs from
Guantanamo to the US and Europe - detainees that the US
had long ago determined posed no threat to the US and
has been attempting to release for years.
The Uyghur cause had been a favorite of anti-communist
Republicans. Uyghurs are an ethnic group from Central
Asia and Xinjiang province in western China. The ones in
Guantanamo were captured in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The Uyghur's high-profile champion in Congress,
California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, wrote Secretary
of Defense Robert Gates in June of 2008 requesting that
the 17 Uyghur detainees be released from Guantanamo into
parole into the US.
Rohrabacher also called on the US government to provide
an apology and perhaps compensation for any abuse the
detainees had endured.
The Uyghurs - and the Republicans' principled position
on the issue - fell victim to the conviction of top
Republicans that it was of vital importance that the
Obama administration suffer a conspicuous setback on an
issue that the GOP still sees as political gold:
In a recent newspaper column, Newt Gingrich, a key
Republican strategist, burned the Republicans' bridges
to the Uyghur cause with an inflammatory and misleading
attack on the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo.
Gingrich insisted that the Uyghurs were too dangerous to
be released into the Uyghur community in Virginia and
accused them of being "trained mass killers instructed
by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000
Americans on September 11, 2001", who "were trained,
most likely in the weapons, explosives and ideology of
mass killing, by Abdul Haq, a member of al-Qaeda's shura,
or top advisory council."
Gingrich claimed the Uyghurs also committed perhaps the
ultimate sacrilege against American values:
At Guantanamo Bay, the Uyghurs are known for picking up
television sets on which women with bared arms appear
and hurling them across the room.
Contrary to Gingrich's accusations, the Uyghurs
indignantly riposted that they are not promiscuously
flinging television sets around the camp.
In fact, only one TV was kicked, not tossed, several
years ago and the culprit was considered to be so
harmless to the US that he has already been released to
The New York Times, in an excellent report on the plight
of the detainees by Tom Golden, had the TV story in June
They described their imprisonment as bewildering and
traumatic, punctuated by moments of the absurd. After
they were cleared for release, they were able to watch
cartoons and Harry Potter movies, until Mr Mamet smashed
the television because of what he said was the guards'
refusal to take him to a doctor. The set was replaced
with one made in China, the men said dismissively; it
broke after a week.
Even if the canard of Islamicist rage against infidel
appliances is debunked, the Uyghurs will find it
difficult to deal with the political realities driving
the abrupt sea change in Republican attitudes.
Republican Lindsey Graham explained how noble causes can
be discarded in a heartbeat when the greater good of
political advantage dictates:
Asked whether any lawmakers were arguing on behalf of
releasing the Uyghurs in the US, he said: "The Uyghur
caucus is pretty small."
The caucus of Republican lawmakers anxious to achieve
political traction against Obama at any cost is, on the
other hand, rather large.
The Republican strategists and their allies in Congress
and the media aggressively counter-programmed against
Obama's rollout of his new security strategy scheduled
for the week of May 18.
In addition to igniting the Uyghur firestorm, the GOP
relentlessly pounded speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's
veracity on the issue of confidential briefings she
received on "enhanced interrogation techniques".
As a finishing touch, the Republicans sent out ex-vice
president Dick Cheney to steal Obama's thunder with an
uncompromising defense of the George W Bush
administration's torture and Guantanamo policies before
the American Enterprise Institute on the same day that
Obama delivered his address on torture and Guantanamo at
the National Archives (home of the US constitution and
Bill of Rights).
There are strong indications that the Obama
administration expected to bookend the president's
speech with a dramatic demonstration of the moral and
practical efficacy of the rule of law and multi-lateralism
in America's new post-Guantanamo and post-Bush national
security policy: the announcement that the president's
team had taken the first concrete steps to closing
Guantanamo by arranging the simultaneous release of the
17 Uyghurs to the US and several European countries.
A knowledgeable observer close to the Uyghurs stated,
"There was a high level of expectation that we would
have seen by now [May 22, 2009] a US release and the
simultaneous release of Uyghurs to other willing
When the Uyghur release plan blew up, Obama found
himself deprived of the key advantage of his office -
the ability to deliver substantive, spectacular results
in addition to speeches.
Instead of triumphantly turning the page on the most
dismal achievements of the Bush administration - torture
and indefinite detention - and pointing the way to
dispersing the 241 detainees still at Guantanamo and
closing the despised detention facility, Obama
discovered, to his chagrin, that the Republicans had
fought him to a draw.
The Obama administration had apparently made the error
of relying on the traditional bipartisan sympathy for
the Uyghurs that extended from human-rights Democratic
liberals to red-meat communist rollback conservatives,
and neglected the necessary political spadework prior to
In the face of an organized attack by the Republicans
and spooked by the eagerness of the political press to
report and incite a compelling political conflict, the
Democratic leadership of Congress retreated in disarray,
and stripped funds to close Guantanamo from the Defense
As the Democrats regrouped, they called on the Obama
administration for a do-over, this time presumably
including detailed discussion and planning for the
initiative, as well as preparations to handle
aggressive, across-the-board pushback from the
emboldened Republicans and their allies.
Gingrich may simply be attempting to gain traction for
the Republicans by attacking the Democrats' perceived
weakness in the matter of national security. It may also
be that Gingrich has a more concrete goal: trying to
sabotage an incipient grand bargain by the Obama
administration to distribute the detainees throughout
That is a deal that relied on a crucial
confidence-building measure: America's willingness to
take its share of Uyghurs - and diplomatic heat from the
Chinese - and provide diplomatic cover to the Germans
and whatever other country might also step up to accept
The idea of simultaneous release of Uyghurs to US and
European custody had already been floated in the
international press as early as June of last year,
during the last months of the Bush administration.
A report in Der Spiegel on May 12 of this year updated
the current status of the initiative in the Obama
administration, and perhaps attracted Gingrich's baleful
attention. It stated that US Attorney General Eric
Holder had asked Germany to take nine Uyghurs, who would
presumably find a happy home among the 500 expatriate
Uyghurs living in Munich.
The article explicitly addressed the issue of linkage
between US and European releases.
Washington now seems to realize they too might have to
take a couple of Uyghurs in before European allies like
Germany do the same - if for no other reason than to
present a common front to the Chinese ... You cannot
expect the Europeans to do what you are not prepared to
do yourselves, said another high ranking American
official, who believes that Germany could eventually be
asked to consider further prisoners of different
A contemporaneous statement by Uyghur emigre leader
Rebiya Kadeer also pointed to a multinational package
deal: "I hope that some of them will be released to the
United States," says Kadeer, who now lives in Northern
With the current collapse of political will for America
to take its fair share of Uyghurs, European support can
no longer be assured.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human
Rights Watch, said the administration understood that
the US needed to take some of the detainees in order to
encourage Europe to help, but that the congressional
rhetoric would complicate those efforts.
"You can't argue these people are too dangerous to be
released in the United States and then ask Germany to
take them, that doesn't work," said Malinowski.
The German wavering occasioned by the failure of the US
to commit to taking some Uyghur detainees can be seen
from the position taken by long-time Bush adversary
Gerhard Schroeder, who would certainly be happy to
endorse the multi-lateralist foreign policy initiatives
From a May 18, 2009, article in Deutsche Welle entitled
"Steinmeier against accepting Uyghur from Guantanamo",
[Foreign Minister] Steinmeier has received support for
his statement from former German chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder, who told Der Spiegel that accepting Uyghurs
would certainly put a strain on German-Chinese
Schroeder said that while he is in favor of supporting
US President Barack Obama in his efforts to close
Guantanamo, only the US is in a position to take in the
Uyghurs without suffering any political consequences
Whether or not Gingrich consciously and cynically
stampeded the US Congress on the matter of Uyghur
detainees in the US to scupper the joint
European/American release and deny Obama a political
triumph, his assertion of the danger the Uyghurs pose is
a misrepresentation of the conclusions reached both by
the Bush and Obama administrations.
The Uyghurs' descriptions of their brief and haphazard
training was apparently enough to assure the US
government of their harmlessness.
Their lack of hostility toward the US was acknowledged
early on, and most recently the Uyghurs have been
serving their time in the low-security sector of
Guantanamo known as Camp Iguana - whose privileges
apparently include television.
The public record illustrates the casual, feckless
nature of the Guantanamo Uyghurs' encounter with the
extremist training/fighting infrastructure along the
Indeed, the picture of the detainees is of wannabe
pro-American Uyghur freedom fighters, not
death-to-America Islamicist jihadniks.
One of the detainees, seemingly eager to highlight his
pro-liberty/pro-free market sympathies to the Bush
administration, described what drove him to flee China
for the destitute, terrorist-infested reaches of the
Pashtun homeland: high taxes.
The reason we left the country was twofold: first, to do
business, because it was getting more difficult to do
business with rising taxes in China. Secondly, political
pressure on Uyghurs had increased. So I left for abroad
in 2000 in the hope of doing some business to better the
situation of me and my family in a more free
Actually, China has instituted preferential tax policies
to aid in the development of Xinjiang.
Be that as it may, it seems clear that many of the
Uyghurs were engaged in anti-Chinese activities as they
rusticated along the Pakistan border: although some of
the captives were innocents snared in the web of bounty
hunters, many of them did confess to receiving training
on firing a single shared AK-47 rifle at an
ETIM-affiliated camp at Tora Bora, according to a study
of the publicly available court documents by Long War
Journal, and statements some of them made to the media.
Yes, he travelled to Afghanistan. Yes, he learned to
fire a semi-automatic weapon there. "But I only ever
used the weapon once, I shot four or five bullets. And
never at people. And never in combat situations."
That's what Hassan Anvar told his captors at Guantanamo
about his time at a training camp in the mountainous
Tora Bora region in Afghanistan. He also told them that
he doesn't hold a grudge against the United States of
America or its allies. "I went to the camp to train to
fight against the Chinese," he said.
Despite the desultory nature of their training, once the
Uyghurs were linked to the alleged ETIM camp - and the
fact was reported in the international media - the
Chinese government would be keen to put them on trial.
ETIM - the East Turkestan Independence Movement - is a
dirty word in Central Asia, to China, and to Uyghur
activists themselves. Neither the US nor the countries
bordering Xinjiang have any interest in antagonizing the
People's Republic of China by providing any professions
of support, let alone a haven, for an avowedly militant
After 9/11, the US obliged China by labeling ETIM a
terrorist organization and, in effect, giving China
quite a free hand in dealing with Uyghur unrest in
The Uyghur emigre community has responded by eschewing
the destabilizing advocacy of separatism.
It has questioned even the existence of something called
ETIM as anything other than a Chinese provocation and
excuse for repression, and constituted itself as the
"World Uyghur Congress" promoting human rights and
democratic Uyghur self-determination in Xinjiang.
This studiously non-violent approach, overtly modeled on
the political strategy of the Tibetan exiles, advanced
emigre Rebiya Kadeer as the Uyghurs' answer to the Dalai
At the very least, these efforts achieved a positive
profile for the Uyghur cause: a Nobel Peace Prize
nomination and a private meeting with former president
Bush and his wife for Kadeer, and a Congressional
resolution sponsored by anti-communist firebrand Ilena
Ros-Lehtinen and co-sponsored by 32 Congresspersons
across the ideological spectrum calling on China to
release her children from custody.
However, ETIM still lives on in Chinese propaganda,
Central Intelligence Agency dossiers, and, one would
imagine, deep in the hearts of some aggrieved Uyghurs.
The Uyghur detainees' advocates exploited the fact that
the US government failed in any case to demonstrate
unambiguous links between ETIM and al-Qaeda or the
Taliban and made the argument that these young men
should be released since they had never displayed any
intention of committing terrorist attacks against the US
- the implication being that if they had sought military
training, it was solely for the purpose of the
independence struggle against the Chinese in Xinjiang.
Indeed, the government had classified the Guantanamo
Uyghurs as "non-enemy combatants" as opposed to "enemy
combatants". According to court documents, the US had no
interest in keeping them at Guantanamo and had been
trying to offload 10 of the Uyghurs since 2003, and
another five since 2005.
This perceived US tolerance of militantly anti-Chinese
Uyghurs and their sympathizers among the emigre
community disturbs the Chinese government, which seeks
to deter potential domestic copycats by demonstrating
its determination to pursue armed separatists outside
China's borders, deny them military or political havens,
and bring them back to China for trial and punishment.
For China, the Uyghur issue is inextricably linked to
the chaotic and dangerous situation in Central Asia.
Since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad, several hundred
Uyghur militants have trained and fought in Afghanistan
and western Pakistan, and some brought their expertise
and anger back to the struggle in Xinjiang. With the
resurgence of the Taliban's fortunes, China is concerned
that anti-Chinese militants will find a safe haven,
material support, and allies in Taliban-dominated areas.
As early as 1992, 22 Uyghur separatists were killed in
an armed clash near Kashgar in Xinjiang and the Chinese
government shut down its road links with Pakistan,
including the legendary Karakorum Highway, for several
months to stop the destabilizing flow of fighters,
drugs, and AIDS out of the Pashtun areas.
Before 9/11, a special training camp for Uyghurs was
reportedly operated near Tora Bora under al-Qaeda and
Taliban auspices near the Pakistan border, and a safe
house maintained in the Afghan provincial town of
According to one report at www.americanthinker.com, the
Chinese claim 1,000 Uyghur militants trained in al-Qaeda
China reports that the ETIM has ties to Central Asia
Uyghur Hezbollah in Kazakstan and that 1,000 Uyghurs
were trained by al-Qaeda. They maintain that 600 of them
escaped to Pakistan, 300 were caught by US forces on the
battlefield in Afghanistan and 110 returned to China and
were caught. At the beginning of the conflict in
Afghanistan, US forces did, in fact, report that 15
Uyghurs were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
Chinese government has been extremely aggressive in its
efforts to ensure that any Uyghur militants seeking
independence for Xinjiang do not find welcome anywhere,
especially in Pakistan.
China may be hyping the ETIM threat, but clearly regards
it as a significant security issue, as B Raman reported:
Talking to a group of senior Pakistani newspaper
editors after a visit to China in 2003, [Pakistan's
President] Musharraf was reported to have stated that he
was shocked by the strong language used by the Chinese
leaders while talking of the activities of the Uyghur
jihadi terrorists from Pakistani territory.
However, except for the killing of alleged ETIM head
Hahsan Mahsum in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
in 2003 by Pakistani forces, for several years Chinese
efforts to get Pakistan to hand over East Turkestan
fighters were unsuccessful. China noticed.
In October 2008, on the occasion of Pakistani President
Asif Ali Zardari's first official visit to China, the
Chinese media pointedly published a detailed bill of
particulars of the eight most-wanted ETIM terrorists,
presumably so that the Pakistani government could not
excuse continued inaction with any pretended confusion
as to who Beijing was after and why.
In April 2009, Pakistan finally agreed to extradite nine
Uyghurs to China.
As for the US, after 9/11, Chinese implacability turned
the issue of repatriating the 22 Uyghurs, who were
captured and delivered to the US for incarceration at
Guantanamo, into a legal and geopolitical headache.
In 2002, the US government made the dubious decision to
share the detainees' dossiers with the Chinese, and even
allow Chinese interrogators to come to Guantanamo to
question the Uyghurs.
The US obligingly softened up the Uyghurs with the
"frequent flier program" - a sleep deprivation technique
(ironically, it came to US notice when the Chinese
practiced it on US prisoners of war during the Korean
War) involving waking them up every 15 minutes - in the
run-up to the interrogation.
The Uyghurs reported that the Chinese interrogators
threatened them and insisted they return to China; not
surprisingly they refused. Beijing, its determination
perhaps buttressed by the intelligence shared by the
United States and the takeaway from its interrogations,
demanded that the Uyghurs be repatriated.
The Bush administration, which quietly repatriated
several hundred Guantanamo detainees during its two
terms, could not bring itself to agree.
Instead, it dug a nice, deep hole for itself.
First it classified the Uyghurs as anti-Chinese
combatants. Then it decided it could not transfer them
to China for fear of torture and execution.
The US government, which has blithely returned dozens of
rendered Egyptians to the tender mercies of the Egyptian
police, took repatriation to China off the table,
perhaps because of the Bush administration's stated
sympathy for the Uyghur cause and Rabiya Kadeer.
According to the New York Times last year:
Some officials at the Pentagon advocated sending the
Uyghurs back to China, and the State Department
eventually sought and received assurances from the
Chinese that they would treat the men humanely. But
senior officials finally decided not to repatriate them,
citing China's past treatment of the Uyghur minority.
As John Bellinger, Legal Adviser, State Department,
testified before the House sub-committee on
International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight
in June 2008:
We are concerned about the situation of the Uyghurs. We
made the decision early on because we thought they would
be mistreated if returned to China. That even though a
number of years back we had concluded not that they were
wrongly picked up - they were picked up because they
were in a training camp in Afghanistan - but it was
concluded rapidly that they were not trying to fight us
but they were trying to fight the Chinese. So we made
the decision early on that they need to be sent
somewhere but they just couldn't be sent back to China.
But even the world's only superpower found that
domiciling 17 Uyghurs was beyond its reach.
After the Albanians, in response to considerable
American diplomatic and financial inducements, agreed to
accept five Uyghurs, the United States couldn't find any
country in the world willing to take the rest.
Vijay Padmanabhan, who worked on repatriations as a
lawyer for the State Department, talked to Frontline
about the largely futile efforts to find another country
that would accept the Uyghurs.
Which countries did you approach?
There was a point in 2005 or 2006 when the US government
had all of our embassies in every country that was a
reasonable possibility go forward and ask them if they
would consider accepting Guantanamo detainees for
resettlement. African countries, Asian countries, South
American countries. Every country in the European Union.
And the answer was almost universally no. So without
saying, this country is in, this country is out, the
reality is that just about every country has been
approached on this question.
After Albania stepped up and took the five Uyghurs in
2006 (one of whom recently obtained asylum in Sweden),
Chinese pressure on the Albanians has been relentless.
As a result the Albanians have refused to take any more
The State Department tried to shop the remaining Uyghurs
to Germany and Sweden, two countries with Uyghur
populations, and also went far afield - way far afield -
to places like Gabon in an unsuccessful search for a
Beijing was also able to prevail upon the Australian
government in January 2009 to openly refuse to take any
Guantanamo Uyghur detainees, either.
Even as the Bush administration was bedeviled by the
practical problem of dispersing the Uyghurs, its efforts
were complicated by a major legal issue. Classifying the
Uyghurs as "non-enemy combatants" pulled them out of the
"war on terror" limbo of sanctioned indefinite
detention, and put them in reach of the US legal system
and habeas corpus.
The Bush administration was thereby placed in the
impossible position of trying to justify the indefinite
detention of people who were no threat to the US.
In October 2008, a US judge ruled that the Uyghurs'
continued detention at Guantanamo was legally
indefensible and called for the detainees to be released
into the custody of Rebiya Kadeer and the avowedly
non-violent Uyghur emigres in the Washington, DC area.
The Bush administration, reportedly at the insistence of
the Department of Homeland Security, decided not to take
this opportunity to solve its Uyghur problem with
domestic parole. Instead it obtained a stay of the
ruling (the decision was reversed by a higher court and
is now under appeal) and continued to detain the Uyghurs
While Washington has dithered, China has been unwavering
in its determination to deny the Uyghurs a refuge
outside of Guantanamo or China.
Wherever the US diplomats went, according to the Times,
they were dogged by the Chinese government: "The Chinese
keep coming in behind us and scaring different countries
with whom they have financial or trade relationships,"
said one administration official, who insisted on
anonymity in discussing diplomatic issues.
Now the Chinese government has found an unlikely ally in
its battle against the release of the Uyghur detainees:
Supporters of the Uyghurs are guardedly optimistic that
the Obama administration will ride out the political
storm, mobilize its allies and advocates, and get the
Uyghurs' release right on its second try.
But one observer wondered if the Uyghur detainees will
be the ones who "turn the lights out at Guantanamo" -
the last ones to leave, long after the rest of the
camp's population had been dispersed.