How the U.S. Betrayed the Uighurs

An Uighur woman protest before a group of paramilitary police when journalists visited the area in Urumqi, capital of China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Tuesday, July 7 , 2009. Ethnic Uighurs scuffled with armed police Tuesday in a fresh protest in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where at least 156 people have been killed and more than 1,400 people arrested in western China's worst ethnic violence in decades. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) AP

Nathan Thrall is a writer whose work has appeared in Commentary, GQ, and The New York Times, among other publications.

In June, when four Uighur detainees at Guantánamo were released to Bermuda, the media's portrayal of their story served as both distraction and palliative: Articles in many papers were written as though the United States had rescued members of an oppressed minority in China and delivered them to a tropical paradise. The New York Times wrote that the men "expressed wonder at their good fortune" and "basked in their new-found freedom," while "smelling hibiscus flowers" and "marveling at the serene beauty." Photographs accompanying the article showed the husky, bushy-bearded men strolling alongside azure waters, splashing in the waves, and licking double-scoop ice cream cones.

But the real story of the Uighur detainees is to be found in the unsavory history of Guantánamo in the run-up to the Iraq War. There, men who, in their fight against Chinese oppression, had looked to the United States with hope, fell victim to a cynical diplomatic betrayal, a corruption of justice that a Bush administration deputy assistant secretary of state has called "nothing short of 'tragic' " and for which even a congressman who supports enhanced interrogation has expressed "deep sadness and regret."

When I met Abubakker Qassim, one of the former Uighur detainees, he was arranging slices of cured pink meat on an extra-large, American-style pie in the kitchen of Pizza Vllaznia Hallall (meaning, roughly, "Halal Pizza Fraternity") on a steamy July day in the Albanian capital, Tirana. A stocky, youthful 40-year-old with a round face and a warm smile, he greeted me in between filling orders, apologizing for his flour-caked outstretched hand.

Everyone at the restaurant--women in abayas and others in miniskirts; long-bearded men with ankle-length pants, and cleanly shaven ones in designer sunglasses and muscle tees--seemed to adore the pizza chef, whose name they pronounced, fittingly for his new profession, "Abu Baker." As he unloaded one cooked pizza after another, two waiters stopped separately at my table to praise his industriousness, and a woman in a hijab confided that he is a "very, very good man." Through a translator, Abubakker told me he was eager to share his story and suggested that we meet on his day off.

At the much-emptied pizzeria early the next morning, Abubakker, joined by a fellow Uighur and former detainee named Akhtar Qassim Basit, recounted his tale, rarely betraying the slightest emotion. It began with his arrest during a Chinese crackdown in his home region of Xinjiang, known among Uighur separatists as East Turkestan. Released from prison after seven months, Abubakker says he witnessed greater Chinese enforcement of bans on male beards, female headscarves, mosque attendance by minors, and bearing more than two children (though he was able, he confides with a smile, to have three: "They can't do anything about twins!"). Seeking religious freedom and more gainful employment, he crossed the border to Kyrgyzstan and planned to work at a Uighur-owned leather factory in Turkey. On his way, he traveled through Pakistan and a Uighur village in Afghanistan, where he arrived in July 2001. Though he asserts that he went there only to wait for a visa, he testified in a U.S. military hearing that, in exchange for room and board, he had trained there "for a future fight against the Chinese government."

Some three months after his arrival, he recalled, bombs fell on the village. (Abubakker said emphatically that he had no idea whose military aircraft were flying above him: "We didn't know about September 11 until we were in Guantánamo.") Abubakker, Akhtar, and 16 Uighurs hid for weeks in nearby caves in Tora Bora before trekking through snowy mountains to Pakistan, where Shia villagers deceived them with a warm welcome and then sold them to the Pakistani authorities for a bounty of $5,000 each. (America had offered rewards for turning in Al Qaeda suspects.)

Once the Uighurs were transferred to American custody, Abubakker said, the detainees were reassured that their arrest had been a mistake: "The Americans . . . said that they had come to Afghanistan for Al Qaeda and that they had no problem with Uighurs. . . . They asked us for information about China and promised us they would not share it with the Chinese"--pledges that he said were repeated after the men were transferred to Guantánamo, six months later.

But these promises quickly evaporated. At the time of Abubakker's capture, in December 2001, the United States denied China's request for custody of the Uighur detainees and refused to link Uighur separatists to the global war on terrorism. But, as military action against Iraq loomed, and the United States faced the possibility that China's representative on the United Nations Security Council would veto any such action, U.S. policy toward the Uighurs changed. In the last week of August 2002, as President Bush prepared to make his case for confronting Iraq to the U.N., Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage traveled to China where, in addition to presenting his hosts with grounds for toppling Saddam Hussein, he announced that the United States was acceding to China's demand to label an obscure Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organization.

The next month, a delegation of Chinese officials arrived at Guantánamo to interrogate Abubakker and the other Uighur detainees. The night before the Chinese arrived, according to congressional testimony of the Justice Department's inspector general, the U.S. military used on the Uighurs "what became known as the 'frequent flyer program' to disrupt detainees' sleep in an effort to lessen their resistance to questioning." The next day, Abubakker told me with an air of indignation, "The Chinese prevented us from eating, drinking, and praying, and questioned some of us for nine hours. . . . They told me, 'If you don't speak now, you will speak in China.' They showed me that the Americans had given them my file--with my name, my home address, information about my family." At the end of the interrogation, when Abubakker refused to allow the Chinese officials to take his picture, "They went outside and brought in two Americans, who held my arms and neck while the Chinese photographed." Afterward, Abubakker said, he was sent on Chinese orders to solitary confinement in a frigid cell, from which he wasn't released until the Chinese delegation departed.

"When I saw that the Chinese had the power to punish us within Guantánamo," he told me, "I feared they would take us to China." As an FBI inquiry into detainee abuse would later reveal, this fear was far from fanciful: An employee who was stationed in Guantánamo starting three months after the interrogation reported that "U.S. officials were considering whether to return the Uighurs to the Chinese, possibly to gain support for anticipated U.S. action in the Middle East. The Uighur detainees at Guantánamo were convinced that they would be immediately executed if they were returned to China." (Abubakker said that, at Guantánamo, he once asked his guards why they had broken their promise: "They told me that the materials had been handed over mistakenly by an official in Washington, D.C." Shaking his head, Abubakker told me with a sigh, "I am not a child to believe such things.")

Even today, the United States has not made total redress for the betrayal. In mid-July, the day before my first meeting with Abubakker, the Uighurs' interrogation was investigated by a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, whose bipartisan members peppered J. Alan Liotta, principal director of the Pentagon's Office of Detainee Affairs, with a series of pointed questions: "Is this a defensible policy, to allow Chinese intelligence communist agents to interrogate people under our control, who we have recognized are no threat to the United States, without legal counsel, . . . and then to provide personal information with regard to their families?"; "[D]o you know what the disposition is of the families whose identities you revealed?"; "Do you know whether they have been executed or not?"; "Do you think we have any responsibility or culpability as to the welfare of those families?"; "[T]his is a defensible policy in the Department of Defense?" The Pentagon's representative replied, "That is the policy that exists today, yes, sir."

At the time of this writing, there are still more than a dozen innocent Uighurs at Guantánamo. For years, no country, including the United States, would offer them refuge. Albania, the first nation that did so--after about 100 others refused--faced Chinese demands to repatriate the Uighurs almost immediately after their arrival. But, when a Chinese delegation came to question Abubakker and other Uighurs at their refugee compound, Albanian officials turned them away. Since then, this poor Balkan country has provided the Uighurs with more than three years of financial assistance while the United States is not known to have offered anything.

And yet, despite his experience with the American government, Abubakker told me that he, like most Uighurs, has great admiration for the American people. As he said to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, "We Uighurs have more than one billion enemies, that is enough for us."

By Nathan Thrall:
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic.
  • CBSNews

Comments