Guantánamo’s Uighurs In Bermuda: Interviews And New Photos

15.6.09

As representatives of the world’s media descended on Bermuda to meet the four Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province) who had just arrived in the capital, Hamilton, after being freed from Guantánamo and given a new home by Bermuda’s Premier Ewart Brown, they gave their first interview to Bermuda’s Royal Gazette, reveling in their early experience of “a small country of people with big hearts,” and explaining, as the Gazette described it, that they “had never even heard of al-Qaeda” until they arrived at Guantánamo seven years ago. They added that they “had never seen pictures of what happened on September 11, 2001, but they did not approve of the terrorist attacks that killed about 3,000 people in the US.”

An exclusive photo of the Uighurs and their lawyers, as provided by Rushan Abbas

An exclusive photo of the Uighurs, as provided by Rushan Abbas. From L to R: Salahidin Abdulahad, Ablikim Turahun, lawyers Sabin Willett and Susan Baker Manning, Khalil Manut, and Abdulla Abdulqadir.

One of the men, Salahidin Abdulahad, explained, “We had not seen anything of the 9/11 attacks, but from what we have heard, it was a terrible tragedy that happened to the American people. We are very sympathetic with the families of those who lost their lives. We’d never heard of al-Qaeda until we came to Guantánamo and heard about them from our interrogators. From what we have heard about them, they are an extremely radical group, with totally different ideals from ours. We are a peace-loving people.”

As someone who has studied the Uighurs’ stories since 2006, first in my book The Guantánamo Files and then in several dozen articles over the last few years, the men’s lack of knowledge about al-Qaeda did not surprise me, as they left their homeland before the 9/11 attacks, and ended up in a small, rundown settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains that was almost totally cut off from the outside world. Such is the taint of Guantánamo, however, that, despite being cleared of being “enemy combatants” by the Bush administration, the US military and the US courts, the Uighurs are still required to prove that they had no connection to terrorist activities.

In the interview, the men took issue with an allegation that has plagued them since being cleared for release: that they had attended “a terrorist training camp” in Afghanistan. Such is the nature of political maneuvering in the United States that this allegation still clings to them, because the Justice Department, first under President Bush, and then under President Obama, used it in an unprincipled attempt to find a reason to deny them entry into the United States (after a judge ordered them to be resettled in the US last October), despite the fact that it contradicts the Bush administration’s own finding that the men never had any involvement in terrorist activity.

Responding to the allegation, Salahidin Abdulahad told the Gazette, “That is a totally false accusation. We were just fleeing Chinese suppression when we went to Afghanistan. We did not go to a military or terrorist training camp. We were in a little village and stayed in some abandoned buildings there. If you saw it you would know it’s ridiculous to call this place a military training camp.”

After explaining that they “were persecuted in their homeland by the Chinese authorities and fled over the border into Afghanistan to escape,” Abdulahad added, “We wanted to go to a peaceful country in Europe, but because of the difficulties with visas and passports, we had to do the next best thing, which was to cross the border into Afghanistan, which was much easier to do.”

The Uighurs then gave the Gazette a brief history lesson, explaining that they “had their own country until it was seized by China in 1949,” and adding that they “have been an oppressed minority for decades.” Providing an example, the men explained that “a mother who had two children and who was pregnant would be subject to a forced abortion at the hands of the authorities,” even though abortion is against the Uighurs’ religion.

The men also explained that, after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, when the settlement was bombed by US forces, they fled to Pakistan, where they were “tricked by Pakistani tribesman, who handed them over to the US military for cash.”

Another exclusive photo of the Uighurs, provided by Rushan Abbas

Another exclusive photo provided by Rushan Abbas. Khalil Manut gets to grips with a moped.

Moving on to Guantánamo, the men said that their “worst moments” came not during their “long stretches of solitary confinement in the spartan cells,” but “when the Americans allowed a visit by Chinese military officials,” who were permitted to interrogate them for two weeks. This was indeed a cynical move on the part of the US authorities, who were currying favor with the Chinese government in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was in marked contrast to the situation that prevailed in previous years, when the Uighurs’ plight was recognized in some US political circles as being akin to that of the Tibetans.

Describing the visit of the Chinese intelligence agents, Salahidin Abdulahad said, “The Chinese delegation treated us very badly. They brought me out and interrogated me for six hours straight with no food or rest. They took me back to my cell and I was extremely tired. But then they came straight back to my cell and took me out for another six hours of interrogation. It went on that way for one-and-a-half days.” Another of the men, Ablikim Turahun, added more disturbing details. “When the Chinese came they wanted to take my picture, but I didn’t want them to, because I was afraid they would harm my family.” He said. “But one of the American guards grabbed my beard and the other held my hands behind my back so they could take the picture.”

Everything the Uighurs told the Gazette — with the exception of Ablikim Turahun’s recollection of being restrained by US guards while Chinese agents took his photo — has, of course, been reported before, as the Uighurs’ explanations of how they ended up in Guantánamo were unwavering throughout their long ordeal in US custody. Nevertheless, Premier Brown has come under pressure for accepting the men, partly from the British government, which has claimed that it was not informed about the decision to accept them (although, as I reported previously, I find this claim unconvincing), and partly from opposition politicians, who appear to view the men’s arrival as an opportunity to score political points at the expense of Premier Brown, and have threatened to call for a vote of no confidence in the current administration.

On Bermuda itself, however, the men appear to have sidestepped the fallout from the political wrangling, at least in their personal dealings with the islands’ citizens. One of their lawyers, Sabin Willett, told the Gazette that when they went into a local store to buy clothes, the radio was on, and various participants in a talk show “were complaining about ‘terrorists’ not being welcome in Bermuda.” Willett explained that the storekeeper, who “looked at the men and quickly realized who they must be,” ignored the voices on the radio and said, “Well, I welcome you here.”

Abdulla Abdulqadir, photographed by Sabin Willett

Abdulla Abdulqadir, photographed by Susan Baker Manning.

A welcome — and the opportunity to work, and to prove themselves capable of contributing positively to their new home — is all the men seek. “Bermuda had the courage to step up and do this,” Salahidin Abdulahad explained. “It’s a small place but the people have extremely big hearts. We want to live a peaceful and beautiful life here and we are ready to work hard. People know we have been in Guantánamo and they have a picture of us which is very different from who we are. When people get to know us they will know what kind of people we are. We are peace-loving people.”

Other reporters who have met the men in the last few days have confirmed their joy at their new-found freedom, and their desire to integrate as swiftly as possible. Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star noted that, in the apartment provided for them by the US government until they find work — “which likely won’t be a problem since local companies have reportedly already made six offers,” as she put it — the men have “managed to form a makeshift family,” helped by their American translator Rushan Abbas, who initially worked with US interrogators after arriving at Guantánamo in 2002, before joining the Uighurs’ defense team. As Shephard described it, Abbas, who alternated between typing emails and “kneading dough for a traditional Uighur dinner … joked that, despite only being a few years older, she considered the men her children.” Shephard also explained that the men “have the assistance of a retired Bermudian army major, Glenn Brangman, who now works with the government,” and who “has become their energetic guide.”

In the New York Times, Eric Eckholm found Maj. Gen. Brangman to be a strong advocate for the Uighurs’ acceptance in Bermuda. After speaking to the men’s lawyers, who explained that they “have been promised work visas and, in perhaps a year or so, possible citizenship,” which “would give them passports and a right to travel,” Eckholm sought the opinion of Brangman, who said, simply,  “The intent is that they shall become Bermudians.” Eckholm also wrote more about the islanders’ response to the new arrivals, noting that, “As the men venture from the seaside cottage where they temporarily live until they get jobs and figure out next steps, people often come up to shake their hands and wish them well, and the men said they were deeply touched.” He added that, “While some less affluent residents said they felt it was unfair to offer jobs and citizenship to men the United States itself would not take, many others shrugged and expressed pride at Bermudan hospitality.”

As the men settle into their new lives, they are all hoping that, after seven years of wrongful imprisonment, Bermudan hospitality will prevail over the rumors and innuendo that are a peculiar side-effect of Guantánamo, in which men held outside the law, never charged or tried, and treated abominably for seven long years, are, perversely, regarded with suspicion for the rest of their lives by all manner of people who should know better, and who should realize that holding prisoners based on a presumption of guilt, and attempting to prevent them from ever having the opportunity to challenge the basis of that presumption, will remain a particularly low point in the history of the United States, until Guantánamo is finally closed, and those still held are either charged or released.

In the meantime, the men also want the world to remember that 13 of their compatriots are still in Guantánamo, although according to information leaked last week, the US government is hoping to resettle them on the Pacific island of Palau, and is, it must be noted, anxious to do this before June 25, when the US Supreme Court is scheduled to meet to discuss whether US courts have any authority to order Guantánamo prisoners to be released into the United States. Speaking to a reporter from Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Abdulla Abdulqadir made a point of saying, “Our 13 brothers still in Guantánamo are just the same as us. People need to understand that.”

Salahidin Abdulahad and Khalil Manut, photographed by Michelle Shephard for the Toronto Star, enjoy their new-found freedom by fishing in the ocean

Salahidin Abdulahad and Khalil Manut, photographed by Michelle Shephard for the Toronto Star, enjoy their new-found freedom by fishing in the ocean.

POSTSCRIPT: On June 18, I was prompted to write the following letter to the Royal Gazette, in response to a rather cheap tabloid article in the paper, entitled, “Tourists upset by Guantánamo issue threaten to boycott Bermuda”:

Fearmongering

June 18, 2009

Dear Sir,

I write to express dismay at your story, “Tourists upset by Guantánamo issue threaten to boycott Bermuda.” If you’re going to pander to this kind of groundless fearmongering, you really should do more to present the other side of the story than just mentioning that the Uighurs were “twice cleared of being enemy combatants by the United States.”

You should spell out that they were cleared of being enemy combatants by the Bush administration and by the US courts, and that the only reason that rumours persist regarding their supposed danger is because certain politicians in the United States decided to score political points by campaigning to resist their release into the care of communities in Washington D.C. and Florida, who had prepared detailed plans for their resettlement.

These men pose a danger to no one, but, like the many hundreds of innocent men who were imprisoned in Guantánamo because of the incompetence and arrogance of the Bush administration, they will forever be tainted by their ordeal, unless braver voices than those who whine about “terrorists” are prepared to point this out, and to congratulate the government of Bermuda for doing the right thing and offering a home to these men when others in America were not prepared to do so.

ANDY WORTHINGTON
London, UK

Note: There seems to be an enormous amount of confusion regarding the men’s names. Salahidin Abdulahad was previously identified as Abdul Semet and was known to the Pentagon as Emam Abdulahat, Ablikim Turahun was previously identified as Huzaifa Parhat, Khalil Manut was previously identified as Abdul Nasser and was known to the Pentagon as Abdul Helil Mamut, and Abdulla Abdulqadir was previously identified as Jalal Jalaladin and was known to the Pentagon as Abdullah Abdulquadirakhun.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Real Uyghur Slams Newt Gingrich’s Racist Stupidity (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

18 Responses

  1. mehmet says...

    Thanks Andy for your relentless efforts to shed a light of common sense on the fate of those unfortunate Uyghurs.

    as a Uyghur refuge by myself, I know what does it look like to escape from Chinese oppression for saving your own precious life.
    Also I know very well that no matter what political spectrum you are in East Turkistan, international political conjunction and your national interest make impossible for any Uyghur man and woman to be hostile against West, including U.S.A since it is only West and USA that can stand against Chinese oppression of Uyghurs in their homeland.

    In another hand almost all “Muslim States” including Pakistan and others closely allied behind China on international stage to use China as a leverage in their relationship with West.

    therefore none of any Muslim countries so far have ever dared to raise their voice to concerning the systematic and gross violation and restriction of religious rights of Muslim Uyghurs by Communist China. therefore Uyghur Muslims have unique position of standing with Western Countries in their freedom challenge against Chinese rule.

    in that context, Uyghurs can not, will not be hostile to any Western countries. this is not exception for Guantanamo Uyghurs. in fact they said openly that “We got one enemy which is China and do not need other enemy”.

    Thank for your research and hard work

  2. The Last Iraqi In Guantánamo, Cleared Six Years Ago, Returns Home by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Thursday, while all eyes were focused on the arrival of four Uighurs from Guantánamo on Bermuda’s balmy shores — and while a few other commentators, myself included, noted that Guantánamo’s youngest [...]

  3. Connie L. Nash says...

    As I read the above comment, I am once again shaking my head with deep sorrow – not only for the terrible plight of the UIGHURS but also that various national and political alliances tend to make so fuzzy what we all need to do as human and world citizens of this planet.

    I wonder if in Pakistan’s case this is somewhat understandable because of the recent origin, heroic founding and the ongoing and current desperate yearning to survive?

    In the case of the US – it’s of course -it’s NOT the role of the UIGHURS (or is it Uyghurs?) to speak out about TWO enemies. Yet, it certainly is ours as westerners to speak out about the motes in our own eyes at least – whenever appropriate – without negating the good. I’lll say here as an American that our national motives are terribly mixed and often anything but objective and with great disregard so often for human rights. There are millions of Americans working to change this sometimes with and sometimes without governmental or state support. Now is the time for western citizens to stand for human rights consistently and clearly – REGARDLESS – of the various administrations and legislators who come and go.

    And although obviously nationalism is still the bottom-line for many. And despite the fact that nations partake of such different collections of baggage and treasures. Perhaps on some sites and with some working groups we can get beyond nationalism – whether the nation triggers the base or the sublime (or usually somewhere inbetween). Maybe the community here at least on Andy’s unique and especially useful site can more and more get beyond national strictures to be fully alive to human need while understanding backgrounds – therefore not needing to require that of others.

    I have an ACTION post today urging help for the Uigurs to remain in Bermuda – please add suggestions for Actions if you have any such as polls and other places to write letters/comments to active discussions/articles?
    http://oneheartforpeace.blogspot.com/2009/06/action-help-uighurs-to-remain-in.html

  4. Erol Akar says...

    well done everyone who took a part ın fındıng a home for these ınnocent ındıvıduals ı hope all those others whose lıves are beıng wasted ın guantanamo by the amerıcan admınıstratıon end up ın the same way

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mehmet,
    Great to hear from you, and thanks for the support.
    Thanks also for pointing out a few important details about why the Uighurs have only one enemy — the Chinese government — and why your people’s plight is so horribly affected by other countries’ relationships with China.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that heartfelt defense of human rights, Connie.
    And for other readers, please follow the link to Connie’s site to find addresses to send letters of support for the Uighurs.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    After I wrote to mui, to say thanks for comments on the previous Uighur article —
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/11/who-are-the-four-guantanamo-uighurs-sent-to-bermuda/
    I received the following reply:

    You’re welcome. Thanks for the wonderful website.

    I like to think that pushing this story will plant seeds of doubt in the minds of those who think all the other Gitmo prisoners are “terrorists.”

    The comments made at the Bermuda Sun worried me. I hope the commenters don’t represent the community that the Uighurs will be dealing with. And I hope I am not stereotyping, but when I look at pictures of the Uighurs, I think of those rural, plain-spoken, open-faced, often totally guileless types (of whatever nationality) working as guest workers, hired for construction or whatever in various Asian or western cities. In normal times, they might have gotten cheated by store owners etc. in the wicked big cities of the world. Thanks to the “War on Terra”, they got thrown into this wicked world of torture prisons and legal limbo. That breaks my heart.

    Thanks again,
    mui

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks to you. Great comments.

  9. mui says...

    Nice post. And hi to mehmet. If it helps any, I don’t think all chinese agree with the callous bitch-speak that sometimes comes from the mainland chinese government. The mainland government says crazy stuff about the Dalai Lama. They get all worked up when the former pres of taiwan speaks at his alma mater in the US. They’re a real piece of work.
    The Turkic influence is said to have contributed to China’s Golden Age, the Tang Dynasty. It is terrible that a glorious history should come to this mess.

    When I scanned though CSRT foia documents footnoted in andy’s book , I was struck by a few things .
    One, the tribunals were so mccarthyesque that I almost became too disgusted and sad to read further. Two, the uighur detainee being inquisitioned — and yes it seemed like a return to the inquisition when they asked him about reading the Koran–seemed kind of vague and unworldly on the question of the foreign fighters in Afghanistan The uighurs didn’t sound too sure about the Afghan geography, seemed like they kept to themselves and sounded a little afraid or really uncertain about the “Arabs” on the trek to Pakistan. And the trek sounded reminiscent of civilians and prisoners of the Germans fleeing the “burning city” that is Dresden . In other words, I don’t get the picture of savvy hardened “terrorists.”
    Which brings me to Three. I don’t think these guys are a threat to Mainland china, no matter what that government might say. Some of the uighurs may have said they wanted to “fight the Chinese,” but that might be like me saying I want to win a million dollars. Honestly, I really, really think the uighurs, including those who reportedly said they wanted to “fight China,” were really just poor men and refugees dreaming of relative prosperity in Turkey and the west, by following in the footsteps of many poor working Asians, by becoming guest workers.

    I am probably venting. But these Gitmo cases are really starting to get under my skin in all sorts of new ways.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re not venting at all, mui. You have seen the truth about the Guantanamo tribunals, and that is a truly excellent analysis.

  11. Andy Worthington: Guantanamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave | My 2 Cents Worth says...

    [...] even though some had been approved for release in 2006. Excluding the Uighurs (four of whom were finally released in Bermuda in June) and three Saudis released in the same month (see here and here), this leaves a total of 38 [...]

  12. Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] even though some had been approved for release in 2006. Excluding the Uighurs (four of whom were finally released in Bermuda in June) and three Saudis released in the same month (see here and here), this leaves a total of 38 [...]

  13. A Plea To Barack Obama From The Guantánamo Uighurs by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] (known to the Pentagon as Abdul Helil Mamut) — have been released from Guantánamo to begin a new life in Bermuda with two other Uighur ex-prisoners, but the other signatories remain, and I reproduce their letter [...]

  14. Guantanamo Envoy: U.S. Should Have Taken Cleared Prisoners; Some Should Never Have Been Held | Vereniging Oeigoeren Nederland says...

    [...] that they were not any kind of threat,” he said, adding, “These are four people who are enjoying freedom who would otherwise be in [...]

  15. Justice At Last? Guantánamo Uighurs Ask Supreme Court For Release Into US by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] government backed down, the four Uighurs who took up residence in Bermuda in June — where they soon demonstrated to any open-minded local that they were not, and had never been terrorists — would have performed [...]

  16. Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now! « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] other issues, Amy also asked me about the case of the Uighurs from Guantánamo who were recently released in Bermuda, about the three Saudis who were also released (and especially Ahmed Zuhair, Guantánamo’s [...]

  17. No Escape from Guantanamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

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  18. Andy Worthington: Guantanamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave | BlackNewsTribune.com says...

    [...] even though some had been approved for release in 2006. Excluding the Uighurs (four of whom were finally released in Bermuda in June) and three Saudis released in the same month (see here and here), this leaves a total of 38 [...]

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