On Radio Australia’s show “Pacific Beat,” reporter Sean Dorney traveled to the small Pacific island nation of Palau to discuss an appeal to the Australian government, made by Palau’s President Johnson Toribiong, asking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to accept for permanent resettlement six Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province), who were cleared for release from Guantánamo by a US court in October 2008, and given temporary residence in Palau on October 31 last year.
I have written about the Uighurs at length over the last few years (see the links at the foot of this article), and share President Toribiong’s concerns that, although they have been freed from Guantánamo, they are culturally and socially stranded in Palau, where there is no Uighur community. My hope is that the Australian government will indeed offer them permanent resettlement in Australia, where there is a 2,000-strong Uighur community, and will follow the example of Bermuda and Switzerland, which have both given Uighurs from Guantánamo a permanent home, despite opposition from the Chinese government.
I acknowledge, however, that this remains a remote possibility, given that a hundred countries contacted by the US State Department refused to take the Uighurs. Primarily, this is because of the importance of friendly relations with China to the majority of the countries involved, to which Palau — which deals with Taiwan rather than China — is immune.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): Most Australians who go to Palau do so for the spectacular diving around Palau’s hundreds and hundreds of scattered idyllic islets known as the Rock Islands. But a three-year old Australian Uighur girl, Khadecha, and her five-year old sister, Sabeha, have come to Palau to claim a new father. Their late father died in a drowning accident back in Australia.
Their new stepfather is Adham Nabi, who spent eight years in Guantánamo Bay. In recent weeks, though, he has married their mother, an Australian Uighur woman whose uncle brought her to Palau for the wedding. The six Uighurs who have been in Palau since November were keen to hear what the President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, had told me in an interview a few days earlier.
President Toribiong: When they first arrived I think they felt for the first time after seven or eight years the enjoyment of individual freedom, physical freedom from physical confinement. They are free here but we don’t have a Uighur community here. And as you know being physically free is not enough. You must have social relationships. One just got married recently to a lady from Australia who’s a Uighur. And others are trying to connect with other Uighurs from all over the world and I can understand that. I mean, they lost seven years during the prime of their lives and they want to have families. And they yearn to go to a community where they can enjoy social relations with their own people.
Sean Dorney: Why would you like to go to Australia?
Abdulghappar Abdulrahman: We need to go to Australia because Australia is a big country. If we go to Australia we feel we will be safe. And in Australia there are Muslims and a Uighur community. Palau is a very small country, no Uighurs. There are no Uighurs.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): Abdulghappar Abdulrahman says they fled their homeland into Pakistan because of oppression.
Abdulghappar Abdulrahman: In Turkestan what happens, for example, last year there were more Uighurs killed. China militarists killed them.
Ahmad Abdulahad: You know about our country what happened right now. There are no human rights. Always the government are causing suffering to our people.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): Ahmad Abdulahad tells me they got caught when the Chinese declared dissident Uighurs terrorists and, for a while, the Americans agreed. He found the price on his head in Pakistan was five thousand US dollars.
Ahmad Abdulahad: Unfortunately, what happened was September 11, and they took us. But from 2003 to 2009 the American Government pronounced us innocent people but no country would accept us. And we spent eight years, almost eight years we spent in Guantánamo Bay.
President Toribiong: When the United States Special Envoy for President Obama arrived in Palau in May of 2009 — the Special Envoy is named Ambassador Daniel Fried — he brought a request from President Obama asking for Palau to accept temporary resettlement of the Uighurs from Guantánamo Bay detention facility because they’d been declared non-enemy combatants by the Federal Court but they cannot go to the United States.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): When the Uighurs arrived in Palau, they spoke almost no English.
President Toribiong: So we enrolled them at our Palau Community College where they are taking crash courses in the English language.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): The Uighurs do their English language courses five days a week. Although there were no lessons this day they offered to take me to their classroom. Their translator who was hired from Australia for six months by the Americans has now left. They’ve been broken up into two groups and do three hours of lessons, one group in the morning and the other in the afternoon. And they like their English teacher, although she does not speak any Uighur.
Ahmad Abdulahad: She’s very kind to us.
Sean Dorney: Yeah?
Ahmad Abdulahad: She’s a really good teacher.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): The tropical rain prompts a question or two about Australia.
Sean Dorney: Well, some parts of Australia get very little rain. Other parts get quite a bit. But Australia is a very dry place.
One of the Uighurs: Some rivers?
Sean Dorney: A river runs through the middle of Brisbane. And Sydney is based on a harbour.
One of the Uighurs: Right now, over there: Hot? Hot?
Sean Dorney: No, at the moment in Australia it’s quite cold.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): The Uighurs say they are innocent victims caught up in a power play between two superpowers, China and America. China claims they should be sent back to China to face the law because they are members of a terrorist organization, something they flatly reject.
Abdulghappar Abdulrahman: Not, not terrorists! We are simple people.
Sean Dorney: Should anyone in Australia be afraid?
One of the Uighurs: Afraid?
Sean Dorney: Afraid of you?
Abdulghappar Abdulrahman: (Breaks into a smile) No, we are simple people. Why, why this? In Palau everybody [waves and says], “How are you? Good.”
Ahmad Abdulahad: We are peaceful people and we are not criminals. In 2003 the US government announced we are free men. Not the enemy of Americans or any country. But the Chinese Government needed to put us in jail.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): On a trip to the seashore we hear of another problem they have in Palau.
Uighur driver: No more meat, no more halal food, no more halal Muslim restaurant. Cannot eat food outside. For us, difficult.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): And once we reach the jetty the subject of food comes up again.
Abdulghappar Abdulrahman: Sheep. Every time we eat sheep. That’s our custom. There are, in Palau, no more sheep.
Sean Dorney: No.
Abdulghappar Abdulrahman: No more sheep.
Sean Dorney: In Australia there are plenty of sheep.
One of the Uighurs: Yeah.
President Toribiong: I hope Australia will accept them. They’ve been freed from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. I think Palau is a stepping stone to a country where they can really be free. Not only free but to enjoy the freedom that we all enjoy to live in the free world, to marry, to have friends, to work, to socialise.
Ahmad Abdulahad: Some of us want to get married. And right now we’re beginning our life like from a zero beginning. Beginning life. We don’t have anything. We only have ourselves. And we want to begin our life, our new life.
Sean Dorney (voice-over): The sea and the tropics are quite foreign to these Turkestani men from China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Province, who hope the future for them lies far away from here down in Australia. And there are two little Australian girls who want to take their new stepfather home with them.
Note: For more information on the Uighurs in Palau, see this February 2010 article in Foreign Policy.
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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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), Who Are The Four Guantánamo Uighurs Sent To Bermuda? (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Uighurs In Bermuda: Interviews And New Photos (June 2009), Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now! (June 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Is The World Ignoring A Massacre of Uighurs In China? (July 2009), Chair Of The American Conservative Union Supports The Guantánamo Uighurs (July 2009), Three Uighurs Talk About Chinese Interrogation At Guantánamo (July 2009), House Threatens Obama Over Chinese Interrogation Of Uighurs In Guantánamo (July 2009), A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantánamo Uighurs’ Interpreter (August 2009), A Plea To Barack Obama From The Guantánamo Uighurs (August 2009), Court Allows Return Of Guantánamo Prisoners To Torture (September 2009), Finding New Homes For 44 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners (October 2009), Justice At Last? Guantánamo Uighurs Ask Supreme Court For Release Into US (October 2009), Senate Finally Allows Guantánamo Trials In US, But Not Homes For Innocent Men (October 2009), Six Uighurs Go To Palau; Seven Remain In Guantánamo (October 2009), Who Are The Six Uighurs Released From Guantánamo To Palau? (November 2009), Guantánamo Uighurs In Palau: First Interview And Photo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (December 2009), Swiss Take Two Guantánamo Uighurs, Save Obama from Having to Do the Right Thing (February 2010), Guantánamo Uighurs Back in Legal Limbo (March 2010), More Dark Truths from Guantánamo, as Five Innocent Men Released (April 2010), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.
[…] corpus petitions in October 2008. However, although 12 of these men have been resettled in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland, Abdul Razak and four others remain in Guantánamo. Having turned down offers of a […]
[…] then 12 other Uighurs have been released — in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland — but the five remain because they refused the new homes they were offered, […]
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