The new “Close Guantánamo” website, an initiative I was involved in launching last month, with a petition on the White House’s “We the People” website, has now entered a new phase — presenting the prisoners’ stories, as told by their attorneys — which is a project that, hopefully, will run throughout the year, and will feed into new campaigns and projects. Please sign up here if you’re interested in adding your voice, and in receiving regular updates.
In the meantime, to help promote the “Close Guantánamo” campaign and the prisoner profiles, I’m cross-posting below the introduction to the prisoner profiles and the first profile, a thorough and detailed account of Abdul Razak Qadir, one of five Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province) who are still held at Guantánamo, written by his attorney Seema Saifee. Please note that many of the links have been added especially for this cross-post.
When the “Close Guantánamo” website was established a month ago, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, we had two aims — to push for the closure of the prison, particularly by focusing on the injustice of holding 89 prisoners cleared for release, out of 171 prisoners in total; and to dispel the still prevalent myths about the prisoners being “the worst of the worst,” by telling their stories.
These are still our intentions, but after a month of campaigning for the closure of the prison we are now about to start telling the prisoners’ stories, to raise awareness of the particular injustice of continuing to hold men at Guantánamo who have been cleared for release.
To understand who these 89 men are, it is necessary to return to the dying days of the Bush administration, and to understand that around 60 prisoners had been cleared for release by military review boards, but had not been freed by the time George W. Bush left office. In many cases, this was because it was unsafe to return them to their home countries, where they faced the risk of torture — countries that included Algeria, China, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.
When President Obama took office in January 2009 and immediately issued an executive order promising to close Guantánamo within a year, he established an interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which included senior intelligence and law enforcement officials, who reviewed the cases of all the men still held (240 at the time), and concluded that the government had no interest in indefinitely detaining, or putting on trial, 156 of those 240 prisoners.
126 of these men were recommended for immediate release — or were “approved for transfer,” to use the administration’s careful wording — and 30 others, all Yemenis, were approved for “conditional detention,” a category invented by the Task Force, meaning that their release was dependent on a perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen.
Since President Obama took office, he has released 67 of these cleared prisoners, and 40 of them were resettled in 16 countries that were not their home countries — Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland.
However, 89 remain. New efforts must be made to release those who can be released to their home countries, and to secure third countries for those who cannot be safely repatriated. Most can be released to their home countries, and third countries are willing to accept the rest.
28 of these men are Yemenis (some of whom have been cleared for release since 2004, when they were cleared by military review boards under President Bush), and there are also the 30 Yemenis held in “conditional detention.” In January 2010, President Obama issued a moratorium prohibiting the release of any Yemeni, after it was discovered that a Nigerian would-be plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen. This blanket prohibition remains unacceptable as a permanent policy, however, because it constitutes guilt by nationality, and it is time for new negotiations to be opened up to secure the release of these men.
Until recently, restrictions made by Congress had prevented the release of any prisoners since January 2011, but the newly passed national Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a provision that allows the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to waive the Congressional restrictions at their discretion.
This is the way forward for men unjustly held despite being cleared for release, and in the weeks to come we will be profiling some of these men and telling their stories, beginning with the Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), who remain held despite having their release ordered by a U.S. judge in October 2008, and following up with the story of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who could be released immediately if the political will existed in the U.S. and the U.K. Please sign up to receive notifications of these updates.
In addition, while we will concentrate on those people who have been cleared for release, they are not the only ones wrongly detained at Guantánamo. When the Guantánamo Review Task Force issued its recommendations, it advised that 46 of the remaining 171 men should be held indefinitely without charge or trial, because they were regarded as too dangerous to release even though there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial. More than ten years after the terrible attacks of 9/11, the United States has no business maintaining a Devil’s Island to detain people it has no intent of charging and prosecuting. In the months to come, we will also be focusing on the stories of these men.
In beginning to tell the stories of the remaining 171 prisoners at Guantánamo, we are delighted to start with the story of Abdul Razak Qadir, one of five Uighurs — Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province — still held at the prison. Even though he was cleared for release in 2005, and won a U.S. court case in 2008, in which a judge ordered his release, he remains held because, although the U.S. government has accepted that it is unsafe to return him to China, where he faces the risk of torture, no country has been found that he trusts to rehouse him safely, and every branch of the U.S. government has refused to allow any cleared prisoner to be resettled on the U.S. mainland.
Below is a detailed profile of Abdul Razak Qadir by his New York-based attorney, Seema Saifee, who also represents three Uighurs who were released in Palau in October 2009 — Ahmad Tourson, Abdulghappar Abdulrahman and Adel Noori. Last month, she wrote an article for Der Spiegel examining the problems facing Ahmad Tourson and the other five Uighurs in Palau.
Abdul Razak Qadir is an ethnic Uighur who has been unlawfully incarcerated in the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base since 2002. The U.S. government cleared him for release in December 2005. In September 2008, the U.S. government admitted that he is not an “enemy combatant.” In October 2008, a U.S. federal judge declared his detention unlawful.
Mr. Qadir has never been charged with a crime. He has never engaged or been accused of engaging in any act of terrorism. He never engaged in military activity nor received any military or combat training. He is an innocent noncombatant who is now embarking on his eleventh year of incarceration. He remains in Guantánamo because he cannot return to his native China where he would likely face persecution and torture.
Mr. Qadir was born in Atush in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a western province of the People’s Republic of China known to its native Uighur population as Turkestan or East Turkestan. In Xinjiang, Mr. Qadir worked as a businessman. He is single and in his mid-thirties, and he hopes for that auspicious day when he is released and can start a family.
China’s Persecution of the Uighurs
Uighurs in Xinjiang have been subjected to severe ethnic, political and religious persecution by the Chinese government. The oppression of the Uighur people, including the arbitrary arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution of Uighurs who advocate equal treatment and express peaceful opposition to repressive policies of the Chinese government, has been well documented by the U.S. State Department and human rights organizations.
Over the last 15 years, China has redoubled its efforts against Uighurs who advocate religious freedom and equal treatment. Uighurs who express peaceful opposition to discriminatory government practices are often charged with “terrorism” or “separatism.” Chinese authorities do not distinguish between “terrorism” and “separatism,” which broadly covers such activities as peaceful protests, studying Uighur history, writing Uighur poetry, or learning about Islam outside state controls. Uighur Muslims who do not adhere to strict policies regulating religious activity are often arrested and imprisoned for engaging in “illegal religious activities.” According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF), Chinese government authorities “have used the global war on terror as a pretext to crack down on even the most peaceful forms of dissent or religious activity.”
Mr. Qadir’s Flight from China
In light of China’s persecution of the Uighurs, Mr. Qadir fled his homeland. He traveled to nearby Uzbekistan in search of greater political and economic freedom, and established a small business selling fabrics and animal skins. In 2001, however, his business began to suffer. He accumulated substantial debts which he could not repay and he searched for greater economic opportunity, but he could not live safely in nearby Central Asian nations, which were notorious for forcibly repatriating Uighur expatriates to China, and he also did not have much money or an appropriate visa to travel to the West.
Mr. Qadir heard that Uighur refugees were living peacefully in a small village outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In the pre-war period, Afghanistan offered a safe haven for Uighurs fleeing persecution from China. Unlike most Central Asian nations, Afghanistan did not forcibly return Uighurs to China. In addition, he could live there cheaply and the nation’s borders were open. Afghanistan offered the safest and easiest option available to him, so he traveled to Jalalabad where he stayed in a village with other Uighur refugees. He met some Uighurs in the village who offered to pay him a monthly salary if he purchased food and clothing in the markets of Jalalabad and delivered them to the Uighur village.
In the fall of 2001, Mr. Qadir was living peacefully outside Jalalabad with several dozen other Uighurs. However, this was soon to change. In October, 2001, the United States commenced military operations in Afghanistan. Mr. Qadir was frightened. He saw people dying from the bombing and did not know anyone in Afghanistan who could provide him with shelter. He was forced, again, to search for refuge.
Along with a group of 17 other Uighurs, he fled east into the mountains, hoping to find safety from the U.S. bombardment. They were unfamiliar with the roads and noticed a group of people traveling east towards Pakistan. They followed this group and crossed into Pakistan. Near starvation, the Uighurs were greeted by local Pakistanis who welcomed them into their village and provided them with food and shelter for the night. But this was not an act of charity. The next day, the local tribesmen took the Uighurs to a mosque and turned them over to the Pakistani police. The Pakistani authorities handed all 18 Uighurs to US forces in exchange for $5,000 each – even though they were unarmed, were not supporting or participating in any combat or hostilities, and were not on or near a battlefield.
In the fall of 2001, U.S. military planes were airdropping leaflets over Afghan and Pakistani soil, offering “wealth and power beyond your dreams” and “enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life” for the handover of suspected “enemies.” In exchange for these financial rewards, Pakistani tribesmen and villagers were turning over anyone they could find. Hundreds of men, including Mr. Qadir, were swept up in a conflict in which they took no part. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Qadir and his Uighur companions were hooded, shackled, and transported to Guantánamo.
Mr. Qadir’s Imprisonment in Guantánamo
Soon after Mr. Qadir’s arrival at Guantánamo, the U.S. military told him he was captured by mistake, he was innocent, and he would “soon” be released. That was ten years ago.
The U.S. government continued to hold Mr. Qadir in Guantánamo, initially, in an effort to secure China’s support for the planned war in Iraq. To this end, in the late summer of 2002, the U.S. embraced China’s false allegations that the Uighurs at Guantánamo were members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (“ETIM”), an accusation the Chinese government made indiscriminately to any Uighur suspected of political dissidence.
But the U.S. government did not believe assertions by the Chinese government that ETIM was a terrorist organization. In December 2001 (around the time Mr. Qadir was brought into U.S. custody), the U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism stated that “the U.S. has not designated [n]or considers the East Turkestan organization as a terrorist organization.” The U.S. terrorist watch-list at this time did not include ETIM.
The U.S. finally consented to China’s request that ETIM be placed on a terrorist list nine months after Mr. Qadir was brought into U.S. custody, listing ETIM and accusing all the Uighurs at Guantánamo of being members as a political accommodation to secure China’s support (or lack of opposition) for the war in Iraq. In fact, ETIM is not designated on the U.S. list of “terrorist groups” today. The Uighurs were thus exploited as a quid pro quo for China’s support of U.S. military action in Iraq. Mr. Qadir is not, and never was, a member or supporter of ETIM. He had never even heard of ETIM until he was questioned by interrogators at Guantánamo.
In the spring of 2003, while the Iraq invasion was underway, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that the Uighurs could not be repatriated to China, where they would likely be tortured or killed by the Chinese government, and began active efforts to persuade a foreign country to accept them for humanitarian resettlement.
However, the resettlement efforts proved futile [except for five of the 22 Uighurs -- the first to be cleared -- who were rehoused in Albania in May 2006]. No other country would open its doors to the Uighurs for fear of damaging its economic and diplomatic relations with China. Mr. Qadir was abandoned in Guantánamo because he had “nowhere to go.” After many false assurances of imminent release, he lost hope that he would ever be released.
Conditions in Guantánamo
Although the U.S. military told him he was innocent, Mr. Qadir was held in the harshest conditions. For one year, he was confined in prolonged isolation in a super-max style facility known as “Camp 6,” where many of the prisoners were held after the facility opened in December 2006. For 22 and, sometimes, 24 hours a day, he was held alone in a 6 by 8 foot steel cell with no access to sunlight, natural air, or human contact. He endured many sleepless nights in isolation. Some of the guards would taunt him and ask, “Are you going crazy yet?” Mr. Qadir developed rheumatism in the cold metal cell. He went on a hunger strike to protest the U.S. military’s refusal to move him to a better camp. As a result, he was force-fed through a tube in his nose.
The U.S. subjected Mr. Qadir to additional cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, including forced nudity, physical abuse; sleep deprivation; deprivation of food and water; coercive interrogations; sensory deprivation; and threats of forcible return to China. The U.S. military also dishonored and mishandled the Qur’an and interfered with Muslim prayers by screaming and banging on the Uighurs’ cell doors during prayer time.
On June 12, 2008, more than six years after Mr. Qadir was taken into U.S. custody, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush (PDF) that the men held at Guantánamo had a constitutional right to a hearing in U.S. federal court to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. Before Mr. Qadir’s case was heard, a U.S. federal appeals court heard the case of his fellow Uighur detainee, Huzaifa Parhat. On June 20, 2008, the Parhat court ruled that the U.S. government did not submit credible or reliable evidence to sustain its “bare assertion” that Mr. Parhat was an “enemy combatant” (the U.S. government’s sole justification for detaining anyone at Guantánamo). The court noted that it was undisputed that Mr. Parhat was not a member of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, there was no evidence that he was a member of ETIM, and it was undisputed that he “never” participated in any hostile action against the U.S. or its allies. In fact, the appeals court determined that the U.S. government actually withheld evidence that the Uighur village where Mr. Parhat was residing was not associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The three judges unanimously invalidated his designation as an “enemy combatant.”
After the Parhat decision, U.S. federal district court judge Ricardo Urbina heard Mr. Qadir’s case. Judge Urbina ordered the U.S. government to notify the court, by September 30, 2008, whether each of the remaining Uighurs was considered an “enemy combatant.” The U.S. government responded to the judge in writing that none of the Uighurs were “enemy combatants.” When given an opportunity by a U.S. federal judge to produce its best evidence against Mr. Qadir, the U.S. government admitted — after nearly seven years — that it had no basis to hold him.
On October 7, 2008, Judge Urbina ruled (and the U.S. government conceded) that the Parhat decision applied to all of the Uighurs. Judge Urbina declared the Uighurs’ continued detention unlawful. He invited the U.S. government to explain what the security risk was to the United States should the Uighurs be permitted to live there, admonishing the U.S. government that it had “seven years to study this issue.” The government could not offer one single example. Understanding that the Uighurs could not return safely to China, Judge Urbina ordered the U.S. government, by October 10, to release the Uighurs to freedom in the United States.
Less than 48 hours before the Uighurs’ scheduled release, the U.S. government obtained an emergency stay of Judge Urbina’s order pending an appeal of his decision. On February 18, 2009, a U.S. federal appeals court reversed Judge Urbina’s decision to release the Uighurs into the U.S. The appeals court ruled that it did not have the “power” to release the men because it was the exclusive province of the political branches (the President and Congress) — not the courts — to decide whether a non-citizen may be admitted into the nation’s borders. Notably, the appeals court did not disturb Judge Urbina’s finding that the Uighurs’ detention was unlawful.
The appeals court also concluded that it was powerless to issue a remedy to Mr. Qadir’s admittedly unlawful detention. The court believed it could only urge the U.S. government to engage in good faith diplomacy with foreign nations to facilitate his release (which the U.S. government was already doing, with no success, for the prior six years).
Two months after the appeals court decision, the Executive branch planned to resettle some of the Uighurs in the United States, but political opposition to this plan was swift and highly charged, and the President abandoned it. The following month, Congress passed a law banning the resettlement of any Guantánamo detainees in the U.S. With the abandoned executive plan, the legislative ban, and the appeals court decision, all three branches of the U.S. government barred the Uighurs’ resettlement in the U.S.
In the summer of 2009, the Republic of Palau, a tiny, remote archipelago in the South Pacific, offered temporarily to resettle the remaining Uighurs until a suitable third country was located for their permanent resettlement. The U.S. and Palauan governments acknowledged that the island was not sustainable as a long-term refuge and that the Uighurs’ relocation there would thus be intended as a temporary solution until another country offered them a durable resettlement. However, both nations also acknowledged that another country may never come forward and Palau may be the end of the road. Mr. Qadir and four of his fellow Uighurs thus declined to go to Palau, an isolated, impoverished island where they would possibly be abandoned forever.
Mr. Qadir has been in Guantánamo for ten years even though (a) the U.S. government (i) has never charged him with a crime, (ii) cleared him for release as early as 2003 and again in 2005, and (iii) admitted that he was not an “enemy combatant;” (b) both the Bush and Obama administrations stated that his release would pose no security threat; and (c) a U.S. federal judge declared that his detention was unlawful. He has lost nearly a decade of his life. Today he remains in jail over three years after his imprisonment was declared unlawful because U.S. judges have concluded that they do not have the “power” to do anything more. To this day, no other country has offered him resettlement.
Mr. Qadir’s Security Assessment
The U.S. military has found that Mr. Qadir does not pose a security threat. The Bush and Obama administrations have declared he is “free to leave” Guantánamo. However, he remains in Guantánamo solely because he cannot return to his home country, China, where he will likely be tortured or killed, and no other country but Palau has offered him resettlement.
The Bush administration falsely accused Mr. Qadir of living in a “training camp.” There is no merit to this allegation. He has never received military training of any kind. The only thing on his mind when he was living in Afghanistan was paying off his mounting debts. The Uighur expatriate village in Afghanistan where he was living was no more than a handful of houses bisected by dirt tracks. It was not a “camp” and no training occurred there. After reviewing the evidence, a U.S. federal appellate court concluded there was no credible evidence that the village was in any way associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Mr. Qadir is a very kind and modest young man. Many of the Uighurs released to Albania, Bermuda, Switzerland and Palau were among the men who were living with Mr. Qadir in the same village in Afghanistan and were captured with him in Pakistan. These men are living peaceful lives today. The Albanian, Bermudian, Swiss, and Palauan governments do not — and could not — contend that the Uighurs’ presence in their nations has ever resulted in the slightest danger to their nations’ security.
Note: See here for a letter sent from Guantánamo in December 2007 by Abdulghappar, one of the Uighurs later released in Palau, in which he wrote the following about Abdulrazaq (Abdul Razak Qadir):
My countryman Abdulrazaq used to have rheumatism for a while, and since he came to Camp 6 it got worse. Sometime in early August, the US army told Abdulrazaq that he was cleared to be released, and also issued the release form to him in writing. As a result, Abdulrazaq requested to move to a camp that had better conditions, for health reasons. When his request was ignored he embarked on a hunger strike, which has lasted for over a month now.
Currently, he is on punishment and his situation is even worse. He is shackled to the restraint chair and force-fed twice a day by the guards, who wear glass shields on their faces. This has taken place for the past 20 days. For someone who has not eaten for a long time, such treatment is not humane. Abdulrazaq would never want to go on hunger strike. However, the circumstances here forced him to do so, as he had no other choice. If the oppression was not unbearable, who would want to throw himself on a burning fire? In the US constitution, is it a crime for someone to ask to protect his health and to ask for his rights? If it does count as a crime, then what is the difference between the US constitution and the Communist constitution? What is the difference between this and Hitler’s policies during the Second World War?
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Aleksey Penskiy wrote:
Andy, Guantanamo Bay violates not only the rights of people held there illegally, but also is non-targeted spending of budget money.I read that for one day of detention in Guantanamo Bay the U.S. budget is very expensive.Why is no one responsible to the taxpayers for the inappropriate use of funds?
Good to hear from you. I wish I could say that the American people care about how expensive Guantanamo is, but when the story came out last year that it costs $800,000 to hold each prisoner at Guantanamo, and I pointed out that this meant $72 million for the 89 prisoners cleared for release who are still held, there was no evidence that it was picked up on as something significant beyond the usual activist circles. Sadly, not enough Americans care not only about the cost of Guantanamo, but also about the insane cost of the entire military-industrial complex with its wars, its weapons and its black ops.
Aleksey Penskiy wrote:
Appeal against a misuse of budget funds in court?
If only there was any respect for that sort of idea, Aleksey! Unfortunately, Guantanamo is apparently legal and all is fine with it, according to the US authorities, and they have laws and court rulings to prove it.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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