Life After Guantánamo: The Suffering of the Uighurs in Palau


The story of Guantánamo’s Uighurs has always been one of monstrous injustice — as well as a monstrous failure of intelligence, and an equally monstrous failure when it comes to the US government taking responsibility for its own mistakes. This is not a unique occurrence in Guantánamo, of course, but it has long been emblematic of the many failures of Guantánamo.

Briefly, the Uighurs are Muslims from Xinjiang province in north-western China, an area subjected to persecution by the Chinese government. The 22 Uighurs who ended up at Guantánamo were, for the most part, refugees who had been thwarted in their attempts to reach Turkey or Europe in search of work, or who, in some instances, nursed futile hopes of rising up against their oppressors. None had any involvement with al-Qaeda, terrorism or militancy against the United States, and they only ended up in Guantánamo because the rundown settlement in which they had been living in the mountains of Afghanistan was bombed by US forces, and, after they fled to Pakistan, they were sold to US forces by Pakistani villagers.

It was clear from the beginning that prisoners whose only enemy was the Chinese government should never have been held at Guantánamo, but they were used as pawns in negotiations with the Chinese government prior to the invasion of Iraq, and although five of the Uighurs were found a new home in Albania in May 2006, it took until 2008 — and a humiliating court defeat — for the Bush administration to give up its claim that the other 17 were “enemy combatants.” As a result, their habeas corpus petitions were granted in October 2008, but although a judge ordered them to be released in the United States, the Bush administration, and then the Obama administration disagreed, and appealed the ruling, securing a favorable response in February 2009 from the right wing judges in the D.C. Circuit Court.

President Obama, fearing Republican criticism, then turned down a plan by White House Counsel Greg Craig, which involved bringing a handful of the Uighurs to live in the US, not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because it would help to persuade other countries to take cleared prisoners who, like the Uighurs, could not be repatriated safely. That was in May 2009, and there was then an unseemly scramble — largely hidden form public view — to find new homes for the Uighurs in case the Supreme Court decided to take their side (although in the end the Supreme Court refused to do so).

Four of the Uighurs were rehoused in Bermuda in June 2009, six others in Palau in October 2009, and two others were given new homes in Switzerland in March 2010. Five others remain, having refused any of the new homes offered to them, and their cases will be discussed soon in prisoner profiles on the recently established “Close Guantánamo” website.

For now, however, I’m cross-posting below an article written for Der Spiegel by Seema Saifee, an attorney in New York who represents four of the 22 Uighurs who have been held in Guantánamo. One of her clients — Abdulrazaq — is still in Guantánamo, and his case will be profiled soon on the “Close Guantánamo” website. However, Seema also represents three of the six Uighurs released in Palau in October 2009 — Ahmad Tourson, Abdulghappar Abdulrahman and Adel Noori — and it is their story, and particularly that of Ahmad Tourson, that was publicized through the article in Der Spiegel.

As she explains, both the governments of the US and Palau “acknowledged that the remote island was not durable as a long-term refuge,” and was only “intended as a way station, a means to leave Guantánamo, a temporary solution until another country offered …sustainable resettlement.” However, “That hope has shrivelled,” because, even though Palau “is far from paradise,” and the Uighurs “cannot find work that provides a living wage,” there is “no reasonable prospect of future resettlement” for the men.

Exchanging One Prison for Another
By Seema Saifee, Der Spiegel, January 19, 2012

On her sixth birthday, Muslima had one wish: to see her dada. On that day, Ahmad Tourson, her father, was trying to sleep. But slumber was a luxury in the windowless metal box to which he was consigned for 22 hours a day, sometimes 24. On Muslima’s sixth birthday, Ahmad was imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He had been there for her last five birthdays as well.

But in June 2008, after Muslima turned six, sunlight shone on the steel vault to which Ahmad was confined. Over six years of courtroom battles and cruel conditions of confinement later, the hundreds of men the US executive claimed the power to hold indefinitely won the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. Ahmad’s case was to be heard by a US federal judge.

In consequence, the US government withdrew any pretense that Ahmad was an “enemy combatant,” admitting it had no basis to hold the man and his 16 Uighur countrymen, all from China. With the case thus abandoned, remedy was the sole question remaining. The Uighurs sought their only possible remedy: freedom in the United States.

On the day of the hearing, US District Judge Ricardo Urbina decried assertions by then-President George W. Bush’s top lawyers that executive discretion was almighty. He invited the president’s lawyers — several times — to explain what the security risk would be to the nation should the Uighurs be freed in the US. “You’ve had seven years to study this issue,” the judge admonished. The US government could not produce one single example.

At Liberty’s Doorstep

Judge Urbina concluded that the detention of the Uighurs was illegal. Understanding that the men could not be returned to their native China, which would likely have tortured, or even executed, the members of the minority ethnic group, and that diplomatic efforts to lobby (and re-lobby) nearly 100 countries for their humanitarian resettlement had failed, Judge Urbina ordered the 17 men freed to the United States. Release was mandated within 72 hours.

The prospect of freedom, once outside his reach, was now within Ahmad’s grasp. The Uighurs, whose young faces had developed wrinkles from years of indefinite detention, imagined boarding a plane to freedom. A contingent of US marshals flew to Guantánamo to escort the men to their new home. Ahmad was at liberty’s doorstep.

But 42 hours before Ahmad’s scheduled release, the US government won an emergency stay to shelve the Uighurs’ release until the case could be reviewed by a higher court. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that US federal courts exercising habeas jurisdiction were impotent to release men at Guantánamo whose confinement was admittedly unlawful. The Great Writ was defiled. Liberty, said the D.C. Circuit, had no guardian.

Ahmad embarked on his eighth year of indefinite detention because US judges concluded they did not have the power to end it. And two presidents agreed. In Guantánamo’s Orwellian land of doublespeak, Ahmad was not detained, said Bush; the US military was “harboring” him (inside a chain-link fence surrounded by barbed wire) because he “chose” not to return to China (a country whose government would have put a bullet in his head), and the president would honor this choice out of executive grace (as the US claimed it had no legal obligation not to refoule him to a country that tortures), until a safe nation granted him refuge (so long as that nation’s president did not reside on Pennsylvania Avenue). And, once he entered office, President Barack Obama spun the same tale.

Not a Durable Refuge

In the summer of 2009, the US State Department negotiated Ahmad’s resettlement with the Republic of Palau, an isolated, impoverished island in the middle of the South Pacific. After multiple years of shopping Ahmad to foreign sovereigns, the US found a remote island, the only nation, it said, to offer him refuge. (Any nation that previously considered granting Ahmad asylum quickly reneged when Chinese diplomats threatened cessation of economic ties. Palau, however, is one of a small contingent of countries that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.)

The US and Palauan governments acknowledged that the remote island was not durable as a long-term refuge. Ahmad’s relocation there, they said, was intended as a way station, a means to leave Guantánamo, a temporary solution until another country offered him sustainable resettlement. Ahmad thus accepted his only opportunity to leave Guantánamo, with the hope, one day, of finding a permanent refuge.

That hope has shriveled. Today, two years since his release and 10 years since he was sold into US custody, Ahmad remains in limbo in Palau. Despite his and the US State Department’s assiduous efforts, he has no reasonable prospect of future resettlement. And the remote island is far from paradise.

Ahmad holds a diploma from a technical college in China. He has experience as a management technician at an oil refinery and as a restaurant owner. He has advanced English language skills. But, in Palau, Ahmad cannot find work that provides a living wage. He is excluded, under Palauan law, from access to the same job opportunities available to Palauan citizens. What is more, he is not covered by Palau’s minimum wage law, which is, itself, a trifling $2.50 an hour. Ahmad has no path to citizenship; under Palau’s constitution, citizenship is conferred only to individuals with native Palauan ancestry. Even if Ahmad could access gainful employment, Palauan employers have refused to hire him. Many raise concerns about losing customers; others call the men terrorists. With a population of just 20,000, the entire island knows the Uighurs. The men cannot blend in; they suffer a unique prominence they would not face in most nations.

Seeking Refuge in Kabul

The scale tips further. Ahmad is a transtibial amputee. Before he was sent to Guantanamo, Ahmad had been living as a refugee in Kabul. Like many Uighurs, he had suffered persecution under China’s control. Ahmad was lashed with electric sticks and his wife was threatened with a forced abortion by Chinese authorities. With modest resources, Ahmad sought asylum in neighboring countries, but most Central Asian nations had deals to deport Uighur refugees to China.

But Afghanistan did not forcibly repatriate Uighurs to China. The nation was (at that time) a safe and accessible shelter for Uighurs. Thus, in 2000, Ahmad took refuge in Kabul. Over a year later, the US and NATO began combat operations in Afghanistan. US cargo planes dropped leaflets from the skies offering significant rewards to locals for catching “enemies.” Ahmad, who was searching for safety for his two-year-old son and pregnant wife, was traded to US forces for $5,000. He was taken to an Afghan prison where his left leg was shattered in a bombing. Once in Guantánamo, his leg was amputated below the knee. In the prison, Ahmad, a young man in his early 30s, was consigned to a walker.

Amputees require lifetime prosthetic care, routinely available in many nations. But no level of prosthetic care exists in Palau. Indeed health care is so limited that Palauan nationals must travel overseas to obtain specialized or emergency care. But Ahmad is unable to travel outside Palau — even for medical care. He has no reasonable means of procuring travel documents or permission to enter another nation. According to orthopedists, without access to this essential prosthetic care, Ahmad will not achieve full mobility. Life on the island is, and will remain, untenable.

Stranded in Palau

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Handbook, resettlement as a durable solution must be accompanied by a meaningful prospect of local integration, which involves more than safety from refoulement [being forcibly returned to torture]. Local integration includes the enjoyment of legal, economic, medical, and social rights, none of which are available to Ahmad in Palau. Indeed, the limitations of the conditions in Palau are precisely the reason the island was not proposed as a durable solution and why relocation there was intended to be temporary only.

Ahmad wants to forget the years he spent without charge at Guantánamo, but he can’t. The sheer isolation of Palau, which has no Uighur or refugee population of any kind, reminds him hauntingly of Guantánamo. And one memory he can never forget is that of the 171 men who remain at Guantánamo, including five of his countrymen.

Ahmad’s only ray of dawn during this dark decade came in 2010, when he was reunited with his family. Muslima, who was born after Ahmad’s capture, embraced her dada for the first time shortly before she turned nine. But the rosy-cheeked girl, whose radiant smile hardship has not obscured, is stateless. She has been mandated as a refugee by the UNHCR. But with no reasonable prospects of resettlement in another nation, she may remain stranded in Palau for the rest of her life.

Note: To listen to Seema Saifee discussing Ahmad Tourson’s story, please listen to the interview here on Canada’s CBC Radio.

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, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Bill Gibbons wrote:

    Remember when President Obama made a joke about Uighur people, he laughed and said, “It takes a Uighur.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bill. It was at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner in June 2009, and he made the following “jokes,” which weren’t actually appropriate under any circumstances:

    First he said: “Nick at Nite has a new take on an old classic: Leave It to Uighurs. I thought that was pretty good.”

    Then he said: “As I have traveled to all these countries, I saw firsthand how much people truly have in common with one another, because no matter where I went there is one thing I heard over and over again from every world leader: ‘No thanks, but have you considered Palau?’”

  3. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks again Andy. Can I take the liberty of repeating an aspect of the US claims that other countries aren’t offering to take in Guantanamo captives that doesn’t received much coverage?

    The USA could publish a list of all the captives who have been cleared for release, and let all the nations openly consider whether they should offer asylum, or refugee status to any of the captives.

    But as we learned during the long negotation over the repatriation of Bisher al Rawi, instead of an open and transparent process, the USA has engaged in closed, opaque confidential negotiations. Why were the negotiations closed, confidential? Because, as we learned when frustrated British negotiators let the cat out of the bag, the USA has wanted to require potential host countries to agree to quietly impose restrictions on the freedom, or privacy of the captives, once they have been transferred.

    The British negotiators, in 2007(?) wanted to see Bisher al Rawi repatriated, because the British public had learned his only activity that could be meaningfully described as an association with terrorism had been when he had agreed to help Abu Qatada at MI-5 supervision. Abu Qatada wanted help finding a new apartment, thinking by staying there he could fly under MI-5’s supervision. MI-5 had al Rawi arrange for Abu Qatada to stay in an apartment where MI-5 had installed a full suite of bugs. The negotiations stretched out for years, because, as the British negotiators leaked, the Americans wouldn’t transfer al Rawi without pre-conditions. The UK had to (1) agree to accept all the other Guantanamo captives who had been long-term residents of the UK; and (2) they had to either imprison the men upon their repatriation, or keep them under 24×7 surviellance.

    What confidential conditions did the UK evenutally agree to?

    In most civilized countries there is some kind of justification required before an individual can be subjected to long-term 24×7 surviellance. The US negotiators were trying to get the UK negotiators to agree to a kind of surviellance that would be a breach of UK law. During the Cold War, when the USA propped up tin-pot dictators like Mobuto Sese Seko, they would happily have agreed to impose draconian conditions (for a price). It seems that the Bush administration thawed out some Cold Warriors who wanted to treat Canada, the UK, and other EU countries as if they were tin-pot dictatorships, with no history of respect for the rule of law.

    Innocent Canadian Maher Arar was held in New York for two weeks prior to his “extraordinary rendition” to Syria, where he was tortured. Canadian security officials had been told, post-9-11, to be more cooperative with their US opposite numbers. US suspicions of Maher Arar were based on information shared with the US by cooperative Canadian security officials. Those Canadian security officials were informed when Arar was captured. American security officials discussed with Canadian security officials the possibility of simply deporting Arar back to Canada, rather than subject him to extraordinary rendition to Syria. American security officials told their Canadian opposite numbers that they would not deport Arar to Canada unless Canada (1) imprisoned Arar, or (2) subjected him to draconian surviellance.

    Canadian officials told the US officials that Canadian law only authorized imprisoning citizens who had been convicted of a crime, or who had been charged with a crime, and were awaiting trial. And since there was no reason to suspect Arar was associated with any crimes, they couldn’t promise to imprison him, or keep him under long term, draconian surviellance.

    In the McClatchy interviews many of the former captives told the reporters of the requirements they report to police HQ on a frequent and regular basis.

    I think it is safe to assume that Albania agreed to impose conditions upon the NLEC captives sent there. They were on day parole, but were required to sleep in the refugee camp by night.

    Did the Obama administration relax the conditions they imposed on host countries? Maybe. But they clearly did not transition to a fully open and transparent process.

    Were the three North African captives transferred to Italy get sent there with an understanding that Italy would charge them? I think so.

    Both Palau and Bermuda do not grant citizenship to anyone not born in their countries. So they can’t get Palaun or Bermudian passports.

  4. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I think I mentioned before an article I read a few years ago that compared how Italian POWs were treated during WW2 and how the Guantanamo captives who were cleared for release were treated.

    I can’t recall now whether the article made the comparison to how the Italians were treated after Mussolini fell, and Italy stopped being an active party in the war. Anyhow, they got day paroles, were able to hold down jobs.

    After the detention camp was opened the Guantanamo base’s population ballooned, about ten fold. Several thousand of the new workers, the ones who perform support roles are foreign workers, employed by private contractors, who perform non-military duties, like preparing the food.

    I think it would be an excellent idea to offer employment on the base to all the captives who have been cleared for release.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks arcticredriver, for the very considered responses as usual. Your research into Bisher’s case throws up some interesting observations. As I was reading through, I was thinking that, yes, the US wants to impose conditions, but countries are not generally prepared to do so, which has been part of the problem when it comes to Yemen, for example. I was also thinking how another huge and under-reported problem for prisoners in need of a new home is that the US authorities have shown prospective host countries the military files, full of lies and exaggerations, that WikiLeaks released last year, with their alarmist talk of “medium risk” and “high risk” etc., which wasn’t always conducive to resettlement plans.
    I also note that just two Tunisians were sent to Italy, not three, but that it was on the very specific basis that they would be prosecuted, and that whole episode was shameful.
    As for Palau and Bermuda and citizenship issues, that may just have been accidental. Primarily, Obama was desperate to get them out of Guantanamo in case the Supreme Court ruled in their favor (he needn’t have worried, as the Supreme Court is now officially spineless).
    And finally, I agree re: offering jobs to cleared prisoners. That would be excellent!

  6. arcticredriver says...

    Forgive the late followup comment. Regarding Yemen, there were three Yemenis who spent a couple of years in CIA captivity, prior to being repatriated to Yemen, where they spent further years in extrajudicial detention there.

    When I first read about these men they were still in Yemeni detention. One of the press reports quoted a Yemeni official, who said that he expected (paraphrasing from memory) that the men would (1) charged; (2) tried; and (3) convicted — just as soon as the USA forwarded to them the evidence against the men.

    In other words Yemeni authorities were holding the men on trust. Yemeni officials didn’t know why the USA insisted the men continue to be held, but they nevertheless were willing to hold these men, without charge, for well over a year.

    I strongly suspect that there was no evidence. I strongly suspect that there was not just no unclassified evidence, and not just no evidence that could be classified at a level sufficiently low that it could be shared with the Yemeni security officials — but that there was no evidence at all, beyond the CIA noticing Arabs in the Far East, and having that trigger their suspicion.

    I think this casts another light on the routine recommendation repeated in the formerly secret JTF-GTMO assessments published by wikileaks. Many of those captives who the camp commandants recommend being repatriated, also say those captives should be held in continued detention, once they arrive home.

    As you noted in your commentaries on those assessments, there was often no real reason to suspect those men had ever had any association with terrorism, prior to their detention.

    The bee in my bonnet, which I am going to take the liberty of repeating, is that the general principles of justice and fairness, and humane treatment are not the only reasons to release the captives who had no meaningful association with terrorism. I think there are strong public safety reasons to release the clearly innocent men, and the probably innocent men.

    So long as innocent men are held as if they were terrorists or terrorist supporters public safety is put at greater risk, because it encourages the squandering of counter-terrorism resources on what should be recognized as wild-goose chases triggered by (1) false confessions; (2) false denunciations; or (3) hysterical paranoia.

    Every risk we choose to guard against is a trade-off, whose benefit should be weighed against the other risks we have to choose not to guard against, because we can never guard against every risk we can imagine.

    American GIs may have the physical courage to go back into the line of fire to retrieve wounded comrades who can’t make it to cover without help. But the record shows very few GIs assigned to intelligence analysis have the intellectual courage to recommend against using counter-terrorism resources on far-fetched threats. They are terrified of being the guy who failed to guard against letting go the innocent appearing guy who turns out to be the next 9-11-inspired hijacker or bomber.

    A few hate-filled torture apologists have found your site, and made a few negative comments. When discussing torture with torture-apologists I prefer to point out that the record shows the use of torture has made us less safe, rather than trying to convince them torture was morally wrong.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, arcticredriver. Very well put indeed. I agree wholeheartedly.

  8. Ketib Oldiais says...

    Hi, Palauan here who stumbled upon this article. I live right next to these Uighur detainees, and I’d like to point out some issues in this article. First of all, I don’t know the credibility of the German newspaper’s Der Spiegel cover on Ahmad’s stories. I’d like to say that the Uighur’s are very openly welcomed in the Palauan community. I’ve never encountered anyone calling them “terrorists”. Maybe there are, but I can tell you right now that we Palauans express nothing but sympathy for these people. They have gone through so much, and we understand that politics has not played well on their part. I’d also like to point out the idea of Palau being “impoverished”. I don’t know why the media portrays the country this way.. Is it because of our minimum wage? If you base the line of poverty on GDP, you’ll find that we definitely do not fit the definition of “impoverished”. But for the most part, I’d like to remove that allegation that Palauans label these kind people as “terrorists”. That’s just libel. I’ve never encountered it, and if you ever came to Palau, you’d find that the locals regularly hang out with them because they’re so different. I myself am a close friend to one of these detainees, and I can tell you right now that he is the kindest man I’ve ever met, and I definitely enjoy the hours on end I’ve spent discussing philosophy, religion, and his intimate personal experiences in life.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Ketib,
    It is very good to hear from you, and wonderful to hear about your friendship with the men. I am sorry if the article I cross-posted contained descriptions that you found offensive. I certainly hope I personally have done nothing to suggest that the Uighurs have received anything other than hospitable treatment. I care very much about them, and I am grateful for the efforts made by the government and the people of Palau.

  10. Lin Hsin Yi (Tracy Lin) says...

    Hi Andy,
    I’m a 24 Taiwanese girl who is going to Palau to carry out my traveling project related to the 6 Uighur people. The reason why I decide to go is that I participate an activity to gain a free ticket to Palau. I was required to observe their life in Palau and I would report their stories in a way of letting them express their missing or traditional songs through audio sounds recording. I will embark on this journey in September and may stay in Palau for one whole month to deeply know them and how the Palauan perceive them. Would you please give me some accessible person’s contact information to let me have chance to talk to them?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Tracy,
    I wish I could help, but I don’t have any contact details. I’d suggest that perhaps the best thing to do would be to try and find the email address of a reporter who’s covered the story, and write to them. Sorry I can’t be of any more help.

  12. arcticredriver says...

    Greetings Andy!

    I’ve read that all the Uyghurs were quietly allowed to leave Palau, with quiet US complicity I imagine.

    I don’t know where they went — maybe Turkey, where many of them wanted to go in the first place.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I’ve been meaning for years to write an update on the Uighurs, arcticredriver, but I’ve never got round to it. This was a great article in the Globe and Mail in June 2015 about the men who were sent to Palau:

    The Globe and Mail reporter spoke to Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, “a local real-estate developer who was [Palau President] Toribiong’s special assistant and charged with caring for the Uyghur men”, was “among the few in Palau who know where the men are now – not even Mr. Chin, the Senate president, has been informed. But Mr. Tmetuchl won’t say where they’ve gone, save that they are not all in the same country – and that they haven’t been in touch since the U.S. pulled them out, in groups of one or two at a time, melting onto commercial flights and new lives.”

    Tmetuchl said, “They went to a country that is favourable to their style of living. I think they are more happy than they were here.”

    I certainly hope so!

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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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