The Last Three Uighurs Are Freed from Guantánamo; 76 Cleared Prisoners Remain

5.1.14

As was reported on New Year’s Eve by Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, one of Guantánamo’s burning injustices has finally been addressed with the release — to Slovakia — of the last three Uighur prisoners, five years and two months after a US judge ordered their release.

The Uighurs are Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, in the north west of the country, and, prior to the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, 22 of them, who subsequently ended up at Guantánamo, had been living in a small, rundown settlement in the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan — either because they had been unable to reach countries they hoped to reach in search of a new life (primarily Turkey, as the Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group) or because they nursed far-fetched hopes of training militarily to rise up against their oppressors.

After the US-led invasion, their settlement was bombed by US planes, and the survivors fled, eventually making it across the border to Pakistan, where they were greeted warmly by villagers who then promptly handed therm over — or sold them — to US forces.

Although it should have been clear that the men were seized by mistake, as they had only one enemy, the Chinese Communist government (a point they made repeatedly), they were initially used as pawns in diplomatic games with the Chinese government, whereby they were designated as terrorists in return for a promise by China not to oppose the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

By George W. Bush’s second term, however, as legal challenges began to be mounted, the US authorities realized that they had to find new homes for the Uighurs, who, they recognized, couldn’t be safely repatriated. Five Uighurs were resettled in Albania in May 2006, but the other 17 remained in Guantánamo, and it was not until October 2008 that, in a courtroom in Washington D.C., US District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered their release — into the US, because of the seeming impossibility of finding new homes for them.

As Carol Rosenberg noted, Judge Urbina ruled that the men “were unlawfully detained at Guantánamo after the Bush administration abandoned an argument that they were ‘enemy combatants.’” As he stated in his ruling on October 8, 2008, “Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without just cause, this court rules that the government’s continued detention of the petitioners is unlawful. Furthermore, because separation-of-powers concerns do not trump the very principle upon which this nation is founded — the inalienable right to liberty — the court orders the government to release the petitioners into the United States.”

Nevertheless, the Bush administration appealed Judge Urbina’s ruling, and when President Obama took office his administration, shamefully, maintained the same position in court, getting Urbina’s ruling reversed on appeal. Behind the scenes, White House Counsel Greg Craig hatched a plan to bring some of the Uighurs to live in the US, but it was dropped by President Obama when Republicans got wind of it, and threatened to use it against him. Instead, four men were rehoused in Bermuda in June 2009, six others were sent to Palau, in the Pacific, in October 2009, two were rehoused in Switzerland in March 2010, and two others were sent to El Salvador in April 2012.

The release of the last three Uighurs — identified by the US authorities as Yusef Abbas, 38, Hajiakbar Abdulghuper, 39, and Saidullah Khalik, 36 — brings to an end what Carol Rosenberg described as “one of the saddest and longest-running chapters of unlawful detention at the US prison camps in Cuba.”

The Uighurs’ story

As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, Yusef Abbas was a farmer, who “learned about the oppression of his people as he was growing up, and was determined to leave to find a better life, but could find little information about other countries, except through broadcasts that were made by a covert US radio station. Having finally obtained a passport, he decided to try to get to America. Taking $600 with him, he went first to Kyrgyzstan, where he was warned that the police planted false evidence on Uighurs and handed them over to the Chinese authorities, but where they took $300 from him instead, and laughed at him when he told them that he wanted to go to America. He then went to Pakistan, where a Uighur businessman, who befriended him at the airport, encouraged him to go to an Uzbek house in Jalalabad, where another Uighur took him to the camp in the Tora Bora mountains.”

Hajiakbar Abdulghupur told his tribunal at Guantánamo, when asked about the “training camp” in the Afghan mountains, “They called this place a camp but that’s way too much of a name for that place we stayed. They did not have enough bathrooms to use or housing or anything. That is way too big of a name for the place where we stayed.” He added, “the conditions were really bad and stressful and there was lots of hard work, [but] I decided to stay there because our goal was to be against the Chinese government and I wouldn’t give up my goal even in the bad conditions to live.”

After the bombing raid that completely destroyed the settlement, so that, as Abdulghupur explained, “it looked like no one ever even stayed in that place,” the men’s journey to Pakistan (and their betrayal by Pakistani villagers) was also described by Abdulghupur. “After that there was no stopping,” he said. “There was constantly bombing all the time. In the mountain we stayed in a cave because we didn’t know where to go … We were waiting for our leaders to come and tell us to go to the city or somewhere else but no one showed up and we decided to go to Pakistan. When we got to Pakistan, the local people came to us with tea, bread and meat, really good stuff. In the middle of the night they came to take us to the mosque. We went to the mosque and then they turned us over to the Pakistani authorities … They put us in cars and took us to jail. After that they turned us over to the US.”

Little is known about Saidullah Khalik, because he refused to engage with the review process at Guantánamo, but in March 2009, under the name Khalid, he was one of the signatories to a letter to President Obama written by a number of the Uighur prisoners, including Yusef Abbas, who was identified as Abdusabur. The men wrote:

Our attorneys have told us repeatedly in the past that President Bush is not doing the right thing by keeping us here and if Obama becomes the President, he will be different and everything is going to be much better, and we also believed in that. But it has been several months since you became the President and we are still in jail here. The dark days are still lasting for us. The word “freedom” is eventually disappearing from our heads.

Judge Urbina reflects on his ruling

In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg described Judge Urbina’s ruling in October 2008 as “a unique decision,” and added that it was “overturned on appeal, thwarted by Congress and snubbed by the US Supreme Court,” all of which is, sadly, true. See here for a particularly poignant analysis of the Supreme Court’s failings by Sabin Willett, who represented some of the Uighurs.

Rosenberg also quoted comments made by Judge Urbina “in an interview to be used when the last Uighur was transferred.”

“I was disappointed,” Urbina said, adding that, although “he understood why Americans might fear ‘importing persons from Guantánamo,’” it was clear that the Uighurs “certainly were not ‘enemy combatants,’” and “there was not a shred of evidence that they were disliked by anyone — anyone but the Chinese government.”

As Rosenberg noted, in the five years since Judge Urbina ruled that the Uighurs had been unlawfully detained, “more than 100 detainees were resettled elsewhere or repatriated to their homelands, six admirals came and went as prison commanders” — and Urbina himself “retired after 31 years on the bench.” She added, “He now works for a firm called JAMS, made of judges and other mediators, which resolve disputes outside the courts.”

Revisiting his ruling, Judge Urbina recalled, “The courtroom was loaded with people — some of them Uighurs, some of them Christian organizations, some of them Muslim organizations — that were willing to step forward with jobs and houses and resources, to make sure those people were not up to mischief.”

He also told the Miami Herald that, at the time of his order to bring them to the US, he had “invited the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice as well as immigration officials to raise concerns.” He told the newspaper, “I would’ve listened to all of that. I would’ve tried to harmonize all those thoughts.” However, neither department responded.

Carol Rosenberg explained that, at the Pentagon, “military officials took Urbina’s order so seriously that they discussed whether to attire them in orange jumpsuits for the flight from Guantánamo to Andrews Air Force Base and whether to let news photographers document their arrival on US soil.” However, soon after the Bush administration won a stay of Judge Urbina’s order, and then the Obama administration shamefully followed suit.

Commenting on the release of the men to Slovakia, Judge Urbina said, “I’m not sure that this outcome is real compensation for what happened. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time for sure. There was no way for the allied forces to know. Certainly it could have taken years to make sure they were not part of an evil insurgency that wanted to do our country harm.”

However, he added, “once the US government satisfied itself that we were not at risk and therefore recognized that these people were, albeit in hindsight, wrongfully detained, it seems to me that steps should have been taken more affirmatively to take these people back to a position that would have compensated them for their loss. That could not be China. The last place on earth those people wanted to go was China.

“Maybe there were better choices than the United States,” he also said. “But I didn’t hear it. I waited to hear it.”

The need for further action from President Obama

It is not known what sort of deal Slovakia has accepted in exchange for accepting the three Uighurs, although the country has a history — albeit chequered — of accepting prisoners who cannot be safely repatriated. In January 2010, an Egyptian, an Azerbaijani and a Tunisian were resettled in Slovakia, although they subsequently embarked on a hunger strike to protest about the conditions in which they were held. Following the Arab Spring, the Egyptian and the Tunisian — Adel al-Gazzar and Rafiq al-Hami — returned home, although it is understood that the Azerbaijani, Poolad Tsiradzho, is still in the country.

It has never been easy for other countries to accept the Uighurs, because China has used its considerable economic weight to exert pressure to secure their repatriation. When the last three Uighurs left for Slovakia, it was the second time this year that they had packed their bags. As the Miami Herald explained, in September, they “had been offered and accepted resettlement in Costa Rica,” according to two US government officials who spoke anonymously about the deal. One of the officials added, “They were ready to go when the Costa Rican government suddenly withdrew the offer.” This same official also called the Uighurs “extraordinarily difficult to resettle, in particular because of Chinese pressure” on countries considering rehousing them.

The release of the Uighurs is good news, of course, as it brings the very specific injustice of their detention to an end, reducing Guantánamo’s population to 165, and bringing to eleven the number of prisoners released since August, comparing favorably to the five releases in the previous three years.

This is a result of the renewed push to release prisoners and to work towards the prison’s closure, which President Obama announced in May, after he was humiliated internationally by the prisoners themselves, who had embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike to remind the world of the ongoing injustice of the prison.

With new legislation easing the restrictions on the release of prisoners imposed by Congress for the last three years, and new envoys working towards the prison’s closure in the Pentagon and the State Department, there is more hope for further releases on the eve of the anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo (on January 11) than there has been since 2009, but more action is needed, and swiftly.

Of the 165 men still held, 76 were cleared for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office five years ago. The task force issued its final report four years ago, in January 2010, and yet these men are still held.

They must be released as soon as possible, and the major obstacle to their release — the fact that 55 of them are Yemenis — must no longer be allowed to function as some sort of pitiful excuse for still holding them. After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb in his underwear, President Obama imposed a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis from Guantánamo, which he only dropped last May, in his response to the hunger strike.

Congress has also opposed releasing Yemenis, but with the easing of restrictions on prisoner releases in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, there must be no more excuses that Yemen is too dangerous a place to release men who, four years ago, were not judged to pose a sufficient security threat to the US to justify their ongoing detention, and it can no longer be regarded as remotely acceptable to taint the cleared prisoners with what I have long called “guilt by nationality.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 79 prisoners released from February 2009 to December 19, 2013, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (herehere and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); December 2009 — 2 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); July 2010 — 1 Algerian1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 – 1 Algerian; April 2012 – 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians, 2 Saudis and 2 Sudanese.

12 Responses

  1. Anna says...

    So the huge sacrifice of the hungerstrikers was not in vain! Excruciatingly slowly, like a dripping tap, yet some of the prisoners are set free into uncertainty and having to find a way to somehow rebuild their shattered lives, but for now no doubt with an exhilarating sense of relief.

    May 2014 offer the same to Shaker Aamer, to the cleared Yemenis and all the others. Financial gains by the US governemnt from not having to finance the detention of the released prisoners anymore, should amply enable it to finance the all the remaining prisoners’ families’ travel expenses to Guantanamo for family visits…
    May those who possibly do have crimes on their conscience, finally receive a fair and lawfull trial and at the very least, also be allowed family visits.

    Wishful New Year’s thinking, but small miracles sometimes do happen. The atmosphere in Washington seems to slowly and very slightly shift for the better on this subject.
    Although there are the regular icecold showers which make you doubt not only the good will but even the sanity of some of the US government’s representatives.
    Such as this statement (concerning the signature of the crooked BSA agrement) made recently by Senator McCain during an official visit in Afghanistan -excuse me, in the US Embassy in Kabul, which of course is not at all the same: “We don’t want to see a repeat of what happened in Iraq where we won the war but lost the peace because of a complete withdrawal.” … Up for the most blatant lie of the year?

    Have a safe and fruitful trip to the US, give our mutual friends a hug from me and come back with some uplifting news :-)

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Happy New Year to you – and I hope to see you soon! Very good analysis of the situation – and of Obama’s need to act. Family visits would be good, wouldn’t it (to put it mildly)?
    You will be missed in America. After your visit last year, we now have lots of mutual friends stateside, so I shall be letting them know how you’re doing, and how nice it was to see you – and to meet Martha – when “Doctors of the Dark Side” was showing in London.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Nme Ofthestate wrote:

    Now at minimum, they should be given 50 million bucks each with NO strings attached, out of the personal accounts of those who put them in there, and those who kept them there.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Nme. I’m just hoping that Slovakia has got its act together a bit better than the last time it helped out Obama on Guantanamo, when the three men transferred there went on a hunger strike: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/06/27/three-neglected-ex-guantanamo-prisoners-in-slovakia-embark-on-a-hunger-strike/

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks also to everyone who has been liking and sharing this. It’s very much appreciated. Just three days now to my US visit, and six days until our coalition of activists – including “Close Guantanamo” – thank Obama for the progress achieved in 2013, but demand more releases as soon as possible: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/12/29/close-guantanamo-now-andy-worthingtons-us-tour-on-the-12th-anniversary-of-the-prisons-opening-january-2014/

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Pauline Kiernan shared this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Thanks, Pauline. I am, hopefully, back and fully refreshed after nearly two weeks off, in which I only wrote and published two articles, and generally spent time with my family, continued cycling around London for my photo project, “the State of London” (launching soon), and also sang and played guitar with my as yet unnamed band – more of that in 2014 too!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Nme Ofthestate wrote:

    Andy, without the all-too-few decent, courageous, human beings such as yourself in this world – doing all they can to right hideous injustices like Gitmo, I’d go insane like most everybody else, who have learned not to care or pay any attention (Government School).

    Really terrific interviews on the Scott Horton Show! Thanks for those!

    Now, to get to those articles above that you posted – thanks for those, too!

    Happy New Year, to you and yours, Andy!

    Andre Lalonde
    Ontario, Canada, tax farm.

    Less killing in 2014!

    Cheers! :)

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Nme. Glad you’ve been enjoying my interviews with Scott Horton. The most recent can all be found under the tag “Scott Horton” here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/tag/scott-horton/
    Tomorrow I have two new interviews – I’m talking to Chris Cook on his Gorilla Radio show in Canada tomorrow (Monday), and on Tuesday to Linda Olson-Osterlund on KBOO FM in Portland, Oregon:
    http://www.gorilla-radio.com/index.php
    http://kboo.fm/adeeperlook

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, Andy. I remember when the 5 Uighurs were resettled to Bermuda in 2009… their top three complaints as relayed to me by the press were, (1) interrogations by Chinese authorities, (2) poor quality of the “frozen” fish on menu @ Gitmo, and (3) they weren’t allowed to take their Nintendo “Wii” with them from Gitmo. See more in this WSJ feature: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124943066488606293

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I think being deprived of their liberty for five and a half years was probably top of the list, J.d., although it may be that the threats posed by the Chinese authorities ranked a close second. Several of the Uighurs have spoken about how threatening the Chinese interrogations were, and I fully support those lawmakers – including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) – who were appalled that the Chinese had been allowed by the Bush administration to visit and interrogate the men (it was, of course, for cynical political maneuvering).

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Lyons wrote:

    HNY Andy! Thank you.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    And a happy new year to you too, Robert. Thanks for your support.

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