A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantánamo Uighurs’ Interpreter


I’m pleased to report that Rushan Abbas, someone I greatly admire for her practical efforts to mitigate the brutal effects of the “War on Terror,” is profiled today on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled, “The Go-Between: Interpreting Life in Bermuda for Freed Gitmo Prisoners.”

Rushan Abbas (right) with Abdullah Abdulqadir, in Bermuda, June 2009. AP photo.

Rushan Abbas (right) with Abdullah Abdulqadir, in Bermuda, June 2009. AP photo.

Since 2005, Rushan has been the interpreter for Guantánamo’s Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, who were seized by opportunistic Pakistani tribesmen, and sold to the US military in December 2001), working first with the men’s lawyers, and, most recently, helping four of the men adjust to a new life of freedom in Bermuda, where they were finally released in June, years after the US government decided that they had been seized by mistake, and eight months after a District Court judge ordered their release into the United States, a ruling that was later overturned by the notoriously Conservative Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and supported by the Obama administration, in one of its most baleful displays of cowardice to date.

The WSJ article begins with an anecdote about the released Uighurs’ recent meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton at Camden, the official residence of Bermuda’s premier. The visit by the well-known minister and activist “was a show of support for Bermuda’s government, which had caught political flak for accepting” the Uighurs, but, as Rushan explained, the men “really had no idea” who Sharpton was.

“I have to explain almost everything,” Rushan told the WSJ’s reporter, Paolo Prada, who wrote that, “In addition to interpreting,” she has “coordinated everything from meals to visits from Bermudan lawyers and government employees who are helping them find homes, English classes and work.” In a sign that the men are starting to find their feet, Rushan also explained that on Monday, they “began jobs as landscapers at the state-owned Port Royal Golf Course,” but even as they settled into their new lodgings, in a guesthouse by the ocean, she was still looking after them. As the WSJ explained, she “baked bread, fried flounder, and made halwa, a sweet confection.” Abdullah Abdulqadir, one of the four men, described as the “most jovial” by the WSJ, explained, “She’s our translator, our assistant, and our chef.”

A 42-year old mother of three, Rushan was born in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, which is still subject to a communications blackout by the Chinese government after violence erupted last month, prompting fears that large numbers of Uighurs are being rounded up by the authorities.

She came to the United States in 1989, after her father, a scientist, “befriended an American researcher who invited [her] to study in the US once she had finished a biology degree at Xinjiang University.” At Washington State University she studied plant pathology, met and married a professor and, over the next seven years, “had three children, became a US citizen and grew active in Uighur-American circles.”

In 1998, when Radio Free Asia, which “broadcasts news and information to listeners in Asian countries where full, accurate, and timely news reports are unavailable,” launched a Uighur language service, she “became the sole female voice on the channel, communicating world news to western China and other Uighur areas.” She left the job in 2000, but, although she didn’t know it at the time, her presence had been noted, and would lead, in turn, to her being hired to work at Guantánamo, and to gaining the trust of the Uighur prisoners.

As she explained, one Saturday morning a few months after the 9/11 attacks, she received a phone call from an executive at Titan Corp., which provided interpreters for the US military. “I’ve been looking for you for weeks,” she was told. Within three weeks, she was at Guantánamo, working as an interpreter during the interrogations of the Uighurs. She soon found the interviews “fruitless and repetitive,” and resigned in 2002, but not before the Uighurs had befriended her. After an interview, one of the Uighur prisoners told interrogators he wanted to speak to her. “You are Rushan Abbas,” he said, explaining that he and other prisoners “recognized her voice from Radio Free Asia.”

After returning to Fresno, California, Rushan’s journey to providing enormous emotional and practical support to the Uighurs — triggered by those encounters in 2002 — began. In 2005, when, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in Rasul v. Bush, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, a number of US law firms began working with the Uighurs, but “had trouble communicating” with them. One of the prisoners then gave them a simple piece of advice. “Get Rushan,” he said.

Since then, she has made over 20 visits to Guantánamo, and now works full-time as a freelancer for the law firms representing the prisoners — and ex-prisoners. She has shared highs and lows with the men — the court victories last year, the tantalizing promise that they would be rehoused in Washington D.C., the dashed hopes when Obama refused to intervene on their behalf — but once the news arrived that four of the men would be freed in Bermuda, she was responsible for explaining to them that they would, genuinely, be free men. “I thought we would still be wearing shackles,” one of the men, Salahidin Abdulahat, said, “recalling their surprise when they stepped into the chartered jet and saw couches, a phone and a microwave.”

Rushan stayed with the former prisoners for two weeks in Bermuda, helping them to readjust, before returning to the US. Now based in Washington, D.C., she is “on standby to fly to Palau,” in case a deal to rehouse the remaining 13 Uighurs in the tiny island nation in the Pacific (which has been mooted since June) comes to fruition. If it does — and the Associated Press is currently reporting that some of the men have overcome their initial trepidation about being within reach of the Chinese government — she will once more be on hand to help the last of her wrongly-imprisoned countrymen adjust to freedom in a strange land, acting once more as a “go-between,” fending off the kind of thoughtless critics who bought the Bush administration’s lies about Guantánamo’s “terrorists,” and who, in Bermuda, used the arrival of the Uighurs in an attempt to score political points.

As Sabin Willett, one of the men’s lawyers, explained, “She got into this expecting vicious, throat-slitting terrorists. Now she’s helping to demythologize those men.” And in the process, of course, she’s doing a fine job of helping the world to understand that these men, who lost seven years of their life in Guantánamo, are human beings.

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

4 Responses

  1. maraahmed.com » Blog Archive » A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantánamo Uighurs’ Interpreter says...

    […] supported by the Obama administration, in one of its most baleful displays of cowardice to date. Full article.     Read More    Post a […]

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

    […] A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantánamo Uighurs’ Interpreter | Andy Worthington […]

  3. mui says...

    What on earth would make her believe the Uighur men were terrorists in the first place? I’m glad she saw the light, but if she was working on broadcasts to W. China, she of all people should know what a freak show the CCP news is. By extension she could have turned an analytical eye to our own U.S. media freak show.
    I came across an article on Chinese Digital Times: Thank you and sorry Xinjiang: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2009/07/blogger-xinjiang-people-sorry-and-thank-you/#

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

    […] 2009), House Threatens Obama Over Chinese Interrogation Of Uighurs In Guantلnamo (July 2009), A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantلnamo Uighurs’ Interpreter (August 2009), A Plea To Barack Obama From The Guantلnamo Uighurs (August 2009), Court Allows […]

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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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