Guantánamo Uighurs: Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department


Map of the Uighurs' homelandToday the Guardian runs a story about the Uighurs (or Uyghurs) in Guantánamo, the 17 Chinese Muslims whose fate is in the hands of a US appeals court. Uniquely, for prisoners held as “enemy combatants” in the Bush administration’s notorious offshore prison — where innocence has been banned as a concept, and the best that prisoners can hope for is that they one day regain their freedom as “no longer enemy combatants” — the case against the Uighurs (refugees from Chinese oppression, who were sold by bounty hunters after fleeing a settlement in Afghanistan) collapsed spectacularly in June, when judges in a US appeals court were finally allowed to review the case against one of the men, Huzaifa Parhat.

Denouncing the government’s “evidence” against Parhat for its resemblance to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the court “held invalid” the decision by a military tribunal in Guantánamo that Parhat was an “enemy combatant,” and in the following months the government admitted that it would “serve no purpose” to continue trying to prove that Parhat was an “enemy combatant,” and then did the same for the other 16 Uighurs.

What followed was a spectacular example of American justice at its best. A month ago, in the District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Ricardo Urbina declared, “Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful.” As no other country could be found that was prepared to accept the men, and the government long ago conceded that it would be unsafe to return them to China, Judge Urbina then ordered their release into the United States, to the care of communities in Washington D.C. and Tallahassee, Florida, who had prepared detailed plans for their resettlement.

As I wrote in a recent article, “The core of Judge Urbina’s ruling was his understanding that the Uighurs — to use those words dreaded by the administration — were innocent men, and had been imprisoned by mistake. Predictably, of course, the administration appealed, but all they had in their arsenal were recycled and thoroughly discredited claims that the Uighurs were ‘a danger to the public,’ who had ‘admitted receiving weapons training at a military training camp.’”

Despite having no case against the Uighurs, the government’s appeal will almost certainly hold up their release for years, as their lawyer, Sabin Willett, explained in what the Guardian described as “a blunt and angry letter” to the Justice Department. Even if the court rules in their favor, the government will appeal again, and the case could then go all the way to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, of course, the government’s last-minute slander of the men as “terrorists” will ensure that no other country will take them either. The Guardian explained that, according to the Justice Department, they “are linked to an organization that the state department has labeled to be a terrorist entity, and it is beside the point that the organization is not ‘a threat to us’ because the law excluding members of such groups does not require such proof.”

In the interests of presenting a viewpoint that is not just “blunt and angry,” but also brims with eloquent and barely concealed disdain for the bureaucrats responsible for replacing American values with arbitrary cruelty, I reproduce below the entire text of Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department. If the appeal fails, it will, I believe, stand — on the eve of the Presidential elections — as one of the most damning indictments of the Bush administration’s lawless and brutal stupidity that you are ever likely to read.

Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department

Our Uighur clients have now been at Guantanamo for about six and a half years. After years of stalling and staying and appellate gamesmanship, you pleaded no contest — they are not enemy combatants. You have never charged them with any crime. In October a federal judge said they must be freed. They were on freedom’s doorstep. The plane was at Gitmo. The stateside Lutheran Refugee services and the Uighur families and the Tallahassee clergy were ready to receive them. You blocked their release by getting an emergency stay from the Court of Appeals. Then by extending the stay. Since then we have done everything we can to try to win that release again and we have failed. And you have positioned this shrewdly. You know it will take many months to get a decision. If we win you will ask for en banc review. And if we win that you will appeal for Supreme Court review. So you know and I know what is happening here. This won’t be over in one month, or in six. It will be years.

And you know another thing. No other country is ever going to take them. Not ever. Not after some genius decided, in your overnight stay papers, for the first time ever, anywhere, to call these people “terrorists.” That the charge is false, that you have now backed away from it in your brief, that doesn’t matter. It will never happen now.

It was never going to happen anyway. [The] State [Department] has been trying to settle this for four years. China has blocked it everywhere. You know it will never happen. If you win your appeal these men will spend the rest of their lives as prisoners at Guantánamo.

So now I am on my way to Gitmo to tell them all of that on Monday.

And I asked for one simple thing of you. I said let me sit down with them together, as men, without them being chained to the floor. And the Defense Department said no.

So I said, let me meet them alone, as we always do. Let me meet them in the hut where we always meet. Station MPs outside that hut, as you always do. Just permit these men one shred of human dignity. Do not chain them to the floor.

And you said no.

Yesterday the court refused to intervene. But it doesn’t end there. Because this isn’t about courts or who wins a motion. This is really about just who in the hell you people are. What you see when you look in the mirror. Or who your clients are and what they see in the mirror. What kind of Americans treat innocent victims with this kind of reflexive, degrading cruelty? Americans don’t treat criminals this way in a federal prison. Americans are not supposed to treat enemy prisoners of war this way under the service field manuals, or the Geneva Conventions, if anyone paid attention to the field manuals or the Geneva Conventions any more. And these people aren’t criminals, and they aren’t the enemy and you say the department of defense will not comply even with its own service field manuals, or with any basic human decency, and carry on like a bunch of small-minded, panicked little people. As an American, I don’t understand that.

And that is what I am asking for you. I am asking you to request of the base commander that he look in the mirror. Tell him I will meet these men alone, one at a time, and I will sit in that hut, and he can station a whole platoon outside to make sure it is only one at a time, and I would like him to show these Uighurs the basic human respect of not having to be chained to the floor. That is my personal request of your client. As one American to another.

And if the base commander will not do that, not even that, then I would like him to meet me and look me in the eye and explain just what in the hell kind of American he is. Because I do not understand it. Whoever the narrow-chested bureaucrat may be who makes these legal decisions sitting in some political office in Washington, however small and un-American that execrable person may be, I am still willing to bet that the base commander is better than that.

I will be there Sunday night.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press/the University of Michigan Press).

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), 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), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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