Guantánamo Uighur Brothers “Happy” in Switzerland, But Struggling to Adapt to New Life


Six months after arriving from Guantánamo to a new life in the Swiss canton of Jura, Arkin Mahmut (46) and his younger brother Bahtiyar (34), seen for the first time in the photo here, have spoken publicly about their release, stating that they are “happy” in their new home. However, as the Swiss website explained, “communication and getting used to another culture has presented the two brothers with challenges — as has living with the memories of Guantánamo.”

The Uighur brothers, from Xinjiang province in north western China, were among 22 Uighurs held at Guantánamo, who were mostly seized and sold to US forces by opportunistic Pakistani villagers in December 2001. The men had fled from a rundown settlement in the Afghan mountains, where they had ended up after fleeing Chinese persecution, or because they had been thwarted in their attempts to reach Turkey or Europe in search of work. Five were freed in Albania in May 2006, and the other 17 — including the brothers — won their habeas corpus petitions in October 2008, although the Justice Department, the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. and lawmakers in Congress successfully opposed the judge’s order to bring them to live in the US — and, last May, President Obama also vetoed a plan by White House Counsel Greg Craig, which would have involved bringing some of the men to live on the US mainland. Instead, four men were freed in Bermuda last June, six more were freed in Palau last October, and five men remain in Guantánamo, exactly two years after they won their habeas petition, wondering if anyone — Turkey, perhaps, which has strong ties with the Uighur people — will offer them a new home.

Discussing the integration of the Mahmut brothers into Swiss society, and their attempts to overcome the scars of their long detention without charge or trial (in which they spent two years in solitary confinement, and Arkin suffered from mental health problems), explained that “Although they want to enjoy their freedom, the road is proving long and stony.” The main road to integration is through learning French (the language spoken in Jura), and Francis Charmillot, the director of the Jura Migrant Welcome Association (AJAM), which is helping the brothers adapt to their new lives, stated, “They are attending a French course four times a week with other students. Furthermore, they have two weekly private lessons.” Their French, according to, is “still shaky, so they are not yet able to have conversations,” but “they are able to live independently — shop and take the train — even if it has its price.” As Charmillot explained,
“They had to learn how to go shopping, use our products and manage their budget. Getting around by bicycle was also an achievement as they first had to become familiar with our system of road signs.”

The article also explained how the small Uighur community in Switzerland — numbering just 80 people — is providing support. Endili Memetkerim, the president of the Swiss Association of East Turkestan (the Uighurs’ name for their home country), said, “We meet Arkin and Bahtiyar regularly and we have invited them to eat with us. The younger one, Bahtiyar, took part in the last Uighur community meeting in Bern. They are pleased about being in Switzerland and they know they are among the privileged. The fate of the 20 other Uighur former Guantánamo detainees has not been so kind. The fact that they like it here contributes of course to their integration.” [Note: The four men released in Bermuda might take exception to this analysis, as, by their own account, they have settled in well in their new home].

Initially, the brothers lived together in an apartment, but asked to live separately at the end of April.
“It’s an absolutely legitimate demand for two adults,” Francis Charmillot explained. “Now they live two kilometres away from each other in Delémont and Courroux and meet up regularly.” Charmillot also explained, as the article described it, that Bahtiyar’s integration “seems to be progressing faster than his brother’s,” which is unsurprising, given Arkin’s well-chronicled mental health problems in Guantánamo.

Charmillot added that Bahtiyar had “embarked on a three-month work experience placement at the charity Caritas in Delémont,” which, unfortunately, came to an end because of his difficulties with the language. “The aim,” he explained, “in addition to consolidating their French knowledge, is to find them work so they can become financially independent. But we have to remember that they’ve only been in Switzerland for six months.”

Charmillot also explained that the brothers “do not speak of their Guantánamo past much, except on rare occasions.” He added, “Recently we went out for a pizza and they said that Thursday was pizza day in Guantánamo. Bahtiyar wants to leave this terrible chapter of his life behind. Arkin, however, finds the prison experience much more difficult.”

This is particularly troubling for Arkin, of course, although Francis Charmillot also explained that a legacy of their imprisonment was its effect on the confidence of both men. “They are insecure and are also asking if what they have done or are doing is all right. They are reassured all the time. These are deep wounds which will perhaps heal over time,” he said. Fortunately, unlike some other released prisoners, the brothers are receiving counseling arranged by AJAM, and are also receiving help from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. ICRC spokesman Christian Cardon said, “It is important for the former detainees that the ICRC ensures a continuity with the work started at Guantánamo. They are happy for our delegate to accompany them in the host country. The ICRC also acts as intermediary between them and their relatives.”

The men have been able to speak to their families by phone, but are, of course, unsure if they will ever see their loved ones again. As explained, ”Despite wanting to integrate into Switzerland, the men still cherish the hope of one day seeing their homeland” — and in this they echo the thoughts of Endili Memetkerim, the president of the Swiss Association of East Turkestan, who told, “We expect to return and this day will come.”

Note: Click here for a short video news report (in English) about the Uighurs’ attempts to integrate into Swiss society.

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 and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and 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), Palau President Asks Australia to Offer Homes to Guantánamo Uighurs (May 2010), No Escape from Guantánamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court (June 2010), Guantánamo Uighurs Thank Bermuda; Supporters Ask UK to Give Them Passports (June 2010), Good News from Bermuda: Ex-Guantánamo Uighurs Settling In Well (September 2010), and the profiles of the remaining five prisoners in Part Three and Part Four of my nine-part series, Who Are the Remaining Prisoners in Guantánamo?

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Over on Facebook, Rowland S. Whittet wrote:

    As I recall how all this started, early in the war in November of 2001 after losing Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora and taking a number of Pakistani volunteers prisoner in the fighting at Mazar-e-Sharif, 5000 of whom were massacred out of hand by General Dostum, some of the remaining prisoners being held at fort Qala-e-Janghi were in the process of being shot out of hand when they revolted, beating some of their Northern Alliance guards in hand to hand fighting and literally tearing Mike Spann limb from limb after which the surviving CIA agent called in airstrikes through Tashkent.

    The survivors included John Walker Lindh who the CIA wanted to interogate rather harshly because of their angst over the way Mike had died. Cheney told them to take the gloves off and the kidnapping, torture and murder began to be accepted as standard practice by the Northern Alliance. Bounties were paid for prisoners to interogate which resulted in anyone who wasn’t actually kin of the tribes fighting under Dostum being turned in for the ransom and eventually ending up in Gitmo.

    With a $40 per annum median wage most if not all of the prisoners turned out to be relative innocents; mujahadeen from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Wajiristan, who worked at being soldiers for whomever would pay them, Russians, bandits, drug dealers, warlords, even the CIA when we were fighting the Russians and the ISI when they were using the Taliban to try and stabilize a pipeline route for UNOCAL from Baluchistan up through Bamyan village to the Caspian.

    We could go as far back as Kiplings time to look at the strategic intrigues, the involvement of Russia, Britain and Germany as regards oil leases, and the periods of relative national unification when Kennedy was present that resulted in the CIA’s attempting to return Cambridge MA restraunteur Karzai to form a jorga and take things over from the Taliban after the Pipeline deal with them fell through.

    The smartest thing Obama could do right now would be to get the Taliban now in negotiations with the Karzai government to take over the country after we leave, to give up their arms now in return for the release and repatriation of all the prisoners still detained in Gitmo.

  2. It Costs $72 Million A Year to Hold Cleared Prisoners at Guantánamo by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] 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, fearing that they […]

  3. Guantánamo: Who Are The Two Uighurs Freed In El Salvador, And Why Are 87 Men Cleared For Release Still Held? « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

    […] Bermuda in June 2009, six more went to the Pacific island of Palau in October 2009, and two others went to Switzerland in March 2010. However, the five who remained were let down by the Supreme Court, and seemed to be […]

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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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