Uyghurs sold out in the US
By Peter Lee
Republican leaders in the United States appear eager to hand President Barack Obama a political defeat and diminish his prestige and domestic and international clout - at the cost of the continued detention of 17 Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo in Cuba.
By accident or design, the US Republicans were able to forestall the imminent release of the Uyghurs from Guantanamo to the US and Europe - detainees that the US had long ago determined posed no threat to the US and has been attempting to release for years.
The Uyghur cause had been a favorite of anti-communist Republicans. Uyghurs are an ethnic group from Central Asia and
Xinjiang province in western China. The ones in Guantanamo were captured in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The Uyghur's high-profile champion in Congress, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, wrote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June of 2008 requesting that the 17 Uyghur detainees be released from Guantanamo into parole into the US.
Rohrabacher also called on the US government to provide an apology and perhaps compensation for any abuse the detainees had endured.
The Uyghurs - and the Republicans' principled position on the issue - fell victim to the conviction of top Republicans that it was of vital importance that the Obama administration suffer a conspicuous setback on an issue that the GOP still sees as political gold: terrorism.
In a recent newspaper column, Newt Gingrich, a key Republican strategist, burned the Republicans' bridges to the Uyghur cause with an inflammatory and misleading attack on the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo.
Gingrich insisted that the Uyghurs were too dangerous to be released into the Uyghur community in Virginia and accused them of being "trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001", who "were trained, most likely in the weapons, explosives and ideology of mass killing, by Abdul Haq, a member of al-Qaeda's shura, or top advisory council."
Gingrich claimed the Uyghurs also committed perhaps the ultimate sacrilege against American values:
At Guantanamo Bay, the Uyghurs are known for picking up television sets on which women with bared arms appear and hurling them across the room.
Contrary to Gingrich's accusations, the Uyghurs indignantly riposted that they are not promiscuously flinging television sets around the camp.
In fact, only one TV was kicked, not tossed, several years ago and the culprit was considered to be so harmless to the US that he has already been released to Albania.
The New York Times, in an excellent report on the plight of the detainees by Tom Golden, had the TV story in June 2008:
They described their imprisonment as bewildering and traumatic, punctuated by moments of the absurd. After they were cleared for release, they were able to watch cartoons and Harry Potter movies, until Mr Mamet smashed the television because of what he said was the guards' refusal to take him to a doctor. The set was replaced with one made in China, the men said dismissively; it broke after a week.
Even if the canard of Islamicist rage against infidel appliances is debunked, the Uyghurs will find it difficult to deal with the political realities driving the abrupt sea change in Republican attitudes.
Republican Lindsey Graham explained how noble causes can be discarded in a heartbeat when the greater good of political advantage dictates:
Asked whether any lawmakers were arguing on behalf of releasing the Uyghurs in the US, he said: "The Uyghur caucus is pretty small."
The caucus of Republican lawmakers anxious to achieve political traction against Obama at any cost is, on the other hand, rather large.
The Republican strategists and their allies in Congress and the media aggressively counter-programmed against Obama's rollout of his new security strategy scheduled for the week of May 18.
In addition to igniting the Uyghur firestorm, the GOP relentlessly pounded speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's veracity on the issue of confidential briefings she received on "enhanced interrogation techniques".
As a finishing touch, the Republicans sent out ex-vice president Dick Cheney to steal Obama's thunder with an uncompromising defense of the George W Bush administration's torture and Guantanamo policies before the American Enterprise Institute on the same day that Obama delivered his address on torture and Guantanamo at the National Archives (home of the US constitution and Bill of Rights).
There are strong indications that the Obama administration expected to bookend the president's speech with a dramatic demonstration of the moral and practical efficacy of the rule of law and multi-lateralism in America's new post-Guantanamo and post-Bush national security policy: the announcement that the president's team had taken the first concrete steps to closing Guantanamo by arranging the simultaneous release of the 17 Uyghurs to the US and several European countries.
A knowledgeable observer close to the Uyghurs stated, "There was a high level of expectation that we would have seen by now [May 22, 2009] a US release and the simultaneous release of Uyghurs to other willing countries."
When the Uyghur release plan blew up, Obama found himself deprived of the key advantage of his office - the ability to deliver substantive, spectacular results in addition to speeches.
Instead of triumphantly turning the page on the most dismal achievements of the Bush administration - torture and indefinite detention - and pointing the way to dispersing the 241 detainees still at Guantanamo and closing the despised detention facility, Obama discovered, to his chagrin, that the Republicans had fought him to a draw.
The Obama administration had apparently made the error of relying on the traditional bipartisan sympathy for the Uyghurs that extended from human-rights Democratic liberals to red-meat communist rollback conservatives, and neglected the necessary political spadework prior to the announcement.
In the face of an organized attack by the Republicans and spooked by the eagerness of the political press to report and incite a compelling political conflict, the Democratic leadership of Congress retreated in disarray, and stripped funds to close Guantanamo from the Defense Appropriation Bill.
As the Democrats regrouped, they called on the Obama administration for a do-over, this time presumably including detailed discussion and planning for the initiative, as well as preparations to handle aggressive, across-the-board pushback from the emboldened Republicans and their allies.
Gingrich may simply be attempting to gain traction for the Republicans by attacking the Democrats' perceived weakness in the matter of national security. It may also be that Gingrich has a more concrete goal: trying to sabotage an incipient grand bargain by the Obama administration to distribute the detainees throughout Europe.
That is a deal that relied on a crucial confidence-building measure: America's willingness to take its share of Uyghurs - and diplomatic heat from the Chinese - and provide diplomatic cover to the Germans and whatever other country might also step up to accept Uyghur detainees.
The idea of simultaneous release of Uyghurs to US and European custody had already been floated in the international press as early as June of last year, during the last months of the Bush administration.
A report in Der Spiegel on May 12 of this year updated the current status of the initiative in the Obama administration, and perhaps attracted Gingrich's baleful attention. It stated that US Attorney General Eric Holder had asked Germany to take nine Uyghurs, who would presumably find a happy home among the 500 expatriate Uyghurs living in Munich.
The article explicitly addressed the issue of linkage between US and European releases.
Washington now seems to realize they too might have to take a couple of Uyghurs in before European allies like Germany do the same - if for no other reason than to present a common front to the Chinese ... You cannot expect the Europeans to do what you are not prepared to do yourselves, said another high ranking American official, who believes that Germany could eventually be asked to consider further prisoners of different nationalities.
A contemporaneous statement by Uyghur emigre leader Rebiya Kadeer also pointed to a multinational package deal: "I hope that some of them will be released to the United States," says Kadeer, who now lives in Northern Virginia.
With the current collapse of political will for America to take its fair share of Uyghurs, European support can no longer be assured.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the administration understood that the US needed to take some of the detainees in order to encourage Europe to help, but that the congressional rhetoric would complicate those efforts.
"You can't argue these people are too dangerous to be released in the United States and then ask Germany to take them, that doesn't work," said Malinowski.
The German wavering occasioned by the failure of the US to commit to taking some Uyghur detainees can be seen from the position taken by long-time Bush adversary Gerhard Schroeder, who would certainly be happy to endorse the multi-lateralist foreign policy initiatives of Obama.
From a May 18, 2009, article in Deutsche Welle entitled "Steinmeier against accepting Uyghur from Guantanamo",
[Foreign Minister] Steinmeier has received support for his statement from former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who told Der Spiegel that accepting Uyghurs would certainly put a strain on German-Chinese relations.
Schroeder said that while he is in favor of supporting US President Barack Obama in his efforts to close Guantanamo, only the US is in a position to take in the Uyghurs without suffering any political consequences from China.
Whether or not Gingrich consciously and cynically stampeded the US Congress on the matter of Uyghur detainees in the US to scupper the joint European/American release and deny Obama a political triumph, his assertion of the danger the Uyghurs pose is a misrepresentation of the conclusions reached both by the Bush and Obama administrations.
The Uyghurs' descriptions of their brief and haphazard training was apparently enough to assure the US government of their harmlessness.
Their lack of hostility toward the US was acknowledged early on, and most recently the Uyghurs have been serving their time in the low-security sector of Guantanamo known as Camp Iguana - whose privileges apparently include television.
The public record illustrates the casual, feckless nature of the Guantanamo Uyghurs' encounter with the extremist training/fighting infrastructure along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Indeed, the picture of the detainees is of wannabe pro-American Uyghur freedom fighters, not death-to-America Islamicist jihadniks.
One of the detainees, seemingly eager to highlight his pro-liberty/pro-free market sympathies to the Bush administration, described what drove him to flee China for the destitute, terrorist-infested reaches of the Pashtun homeland: high taxes.
The reason we left the country was twofold: first, to do business, because it was getting more difficult to do business with rising taxes in China. Secondly, political pressure on Uyghurs had increased. So I left for abroad in 2000 in the hope of doing some business to better the situation of me and my family in a more free environment.
Actually, China has instituted preferential tax policies to aid in the development of Xinjiang.
Be that as it may, it seems clear that many of the Uyghurs were engaged in anti-Chinese activities as they rusticated along the Pakistan border: although some of the captives were innocents snared in the web of bounty hunters, many of them did confess to receiving training on firing a single shared AK-47 rifle at an ETIM-affiliated camp at Tora Bora, according to a study of the publicly available court documents by Long War Journal, and statements some of them made to the media.
Yes, he travelled to Afghanistan. Yes, he learned to fire a semi-automatic weapon there. "But I only ever used the weapon once, I shot four or five bullets. And never at people. And never in combat situations."
That's what Hassan Anvar told his captors at Guantanamo about his time at a training camp in the mountainous Tora Bora region in Afghanistan. He also told them that he doesn't hold a grudge against the United States of America or its allies. "I went to the camp to train to fight against the Chinese," he said.
Despite the desultory nature of their training, once the Uyghurs were linked to the alleged ETIM camp - and the fact was reported in the international media - the Chinese government would be keen to put them on trial.
ETIM - the East Turkestan Independence Movement - is a dirty word in Central Asia, to China, and to Uyghur activists themselves. Neither the US nor the countries bordering Xinjiang have any interest in antagonizing the People's Republic of China by providing any professions of support, let alone a haven, for an avowedly militant liberation movement.
After 9/11, the US obliged China by labeling ETIM a terrorist organization and, in effect, giving China quite a free hand in dealing with Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang.
The Uyghur emigre community has responded by eschewing the destabilizing advocacy of separatism.
It has questioned even the existence of something called ETIM as anything other than a Chinese provocation and excuse for repression, and constituted itself as the "World Uyghur Congress" promoting human rights and democratic Uyghur self-determination in Xinjiang.
This studiously non-violent approach, overtly modeled on the political strategy of the Tibetan exiles, advanced emigre Rebiya Kadeer as the Uyghurs' answer to the Dalai Lama.
At the very least, these efforts achieved a positive profile for the Uyghur cause: a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and a private meeting with former president Bush and his wife for Kadeer, and a Congressional resolution sponsored by anti-communist firebrand Ilena Ros-Lehtinen and co-sponsored by 32 Congresspersons across the ideological spectrum calling on China to release her children from custody.
However, ETIM still lives on in Chinese propaganda, Central Intelligence Agency dossiers, and, one would imagine, deep in the hearts of some aggrieved Uyghurs.
The Uyghur detainees' advocates exploited the fact that the US government failed in any case to demonstrate unambiguous links between ETIM and al-Qaeda or the Taliban and made the argument that these young men should be released since they had never displayed any intention of committing terrorist attacks against the US - the implication being that if they had sought military training, it was solely for the purpose of the independence struggle against the Chinese in Xinjiang.
Indeed, the government had classified the Guantanamo Uyghurs as "non-enemy combatants" as opposed to "enemy combatants". According to court documents, the US had no interest in keeping them at Guantanamo and had been trying to offload 10 of the Uyghurs since 2003, and another five since 2005.
This perceived US tolerance of militantly anti-Chinese Uyghurs and their sympathizers among the emigre community disturbs the Chinese government, which seeks to deter potential domestic copycats by demonstrating its determination to pursue armed separatists outside China's borders, deny them military or political havens, and bring them back to China for trial and punishment.
For China, the Uyghur issue is inextricably linked to the chaotic and dangerous situation in Central Asia.
Since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad, several hundred Uyghur militants have trained and fought in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, and some brought their expertise and anger back to the struggle in Xinjiang. With the resurgence of the Taliban's fortunes, China is concerned that anti-Chinese militants will find a safe haven, material support, and allies in Taliban-dominated areas.
As early as 1992, 22 Uyghur separatists were killed in an armed clash near Kashgar in Xinjiang and the Chinese government shut down its road links with Pakistan, including the legendary Karakorum Highway, for several months to stop the destabilizing flow of fighters, drugs, and AIDS out of the Pashtun areas.
Before 9/11, a special training camp for Uyghurs was reportedly operated near Tora Bora under al-Qaeda and Taliban auspices near the Pakistan border, and a safe house maintained in the Afghan provincial town of Jalalabad.
According to one report at www.americanthinker.com, the Chinese claim 1,000 Uyghur militants trained in al-Qaeda camps.
China reports that the ETIM has ties to Central Asia Uyghur Hezbollah in Kazakstan and that 1,000 Uyghurs were trained by al-Qaeda. They maintain that 600 of them escaped to Pakistan, 300 were caught by US forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan and 110 returned to China and were caught. At the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan, US forces did, in fact, report that 15 Uyghurs were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
Chinese government has been extremely aggressive in its efforts to ensure that any Uyghur militants seeking independence for Xinjiang do not find welcome anywhere, especially in Pakistan.
China may be hyping the ETIM threat, but clearly regards it as a significant security issue, as B Raman reported:
Talking to a group of senior Pakistani newspaper editors after a visit to China in 2003, [Pakistan's President] Musharraf was reported to have stated that he was shocked by the strong language used by the Chinese leaders while talking of the activities of the Uyghur jihadi terrorists from Pakistani territory.
However, except for the killing of alleged ETIM head Hahsan Mahsum in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 2003 by Pakistani forces, for several years Chinese efforts to get Pakistan to hand over East Turkestan fighters were unsuccessful. China noticed.
In October 2008, on the occasion of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's first official visit to China, the Chinese media pointedly published a detailed bill of particulars of the eight most-wanted ETIM terrorists, presumably so that the Pakistani government could not excuse continued inaction with any pretended confusion as to who Beijing was after and why.
In April 2009, Pakistan finally agreed to extradite nine Uyghurs to China.
As for the US, after 9/11, Chinese implacability turned the issue of repatriating the 22 Uyghurs, who were captured and delivered to the US for incarceration at Guantanamo, into a legal and geopolitical headache.
In 2002, the US government made the dubious decision to share the detainees' dossiers with the Chinese, and even allow Chinese interrogators to come to Guantanamo to question the Uyghurs.
The US obligingly softened up the Uyghurs with the "frequent flier program" - a sleep deprivation technique (ironically, it came to US notice when the Chinese practiced it on US prisoners of war during the Korean War) involving waking them up every 15 minutes - in the run-up to the interrogation.
The Uyghurs reported that the Chinese interrogators threatened them and insisted they return to China; not surprisingly they refused. Beijing, its determination perhaps buttressed by the intelligence shared by the United States and the takeaway from its interrogations, demanded that the Uyghurs be repatriated.
The Bush administration, which quietly repatriated several hundred Guantanamo detainees during its two terms, could not bring itself to agree.
Instead, it dug a nice, deep hole for itself.
First it classified the Uyghurs as anti-Chinese combatants. Then it decided it could not transfer them to China for fear of torture and execution.
The US government, which has blithely returned dozens of rendered Egyptians to the tender mercies of the Egyptian police, took repatriation to China off the table, perhaps because of the Bush administration's stated sympathy for the Uyghur cause and Rabiya Kadeer.
According to the New York Times last year:
Some officials at the Pentagon advocated sending the Uyghurs back to China, and the State Department eventually sought and received assurances from the Chinese that they would treat the men humanely. But senior officials finally decided not to repatriate them, citing China's past treatment of the Uyghur minority.
As John Bellinger, Legal Adviser, State Department, testified before the House sub-committee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight in June 2008:
We are concerned about the situation of the Uyghurs. We made the decision early on because we thought they would be mistreated if returned to China. That even though a number of years back we had concluded not that they were wrongly picked up - they were picked up because they were in a training camp in Afghanistan - but it was concluded rapidly that they were not trying to fight us but they were trying to fight the Chinese. So we made the decision early on that they need to be sent somewhere but they just couldn't be sent back to China.
But even the world's only superpower found that domiciling 17 Uyghurs was beyond its reach.
After the Albanians, in response to considerable American diplomatic and financial inducements, agreed to accept five Uyghurs, the United States couldn't find any country in the world willing to take the rest.
Vijay Padmanabhan, who worked on repatriations as a lawyer for the State Department, talked to Frontline about the largely futile efforts to find another country that would accept the Uyghurs.
Which countries did you approach?
There was a point in 2005 or 2006 when the US government had all of our embassies in every country that was a reasonable possibility go forward and ask them if they would consider accepting Guantanamo detainees for resettlement. African countries, Asian countries, South American countries. Every country in the European Union. And the answer was almost universally no. So without saying, this country is in, this country is out, the reality is that just about every country has been approached on this question.
After Albania stepped up and took the five Uyghurs in 2006 (one of whom recently obtained asylum in Sweden), Chinese pressure on the Albanians has been relentless.
As a result the Albanians have refused to take any more Uyghurs.
The State Department tried to shop the remaining Uyghurs to Germany and Sweden, two countries with Uyghur populations, and also went far afield - way far afield - to places like Gabon in an unsuccessful search for a refuge.
Beijing was also able to prevail upon the Australian government in January 2009 to openly refuse to take any Guantanamo Uyghur detainees, either.
Even as the Bush administration was bedeviled by the practical problem of dispersing the Uyghurs, its efforts were complicated by a major legal issue. Classifying the Uyghurs as "non-enemy combatants" pulled them out of the "war on terror" limbo of sanctioned indefinite detention, and put them in reach of the US legal system and habeas corpus.
The Bush administration was thereby placed in the impossible position of trying to justify the indefinite detention of people who were no threat to the US.
In October 2008, a US judge ruled that the Uyghurs' continued detention at Guantanamo was legally indefensible and called for the detainees to be released into the custody of Rebiya Kadeer and the avowedly non-violent Uyghur emigres in the Washington, DC area.
The Bush administration, reportedly at the insistence of the Department of Homeland Security, decided not to take this opportunity to solve its Uyghur problem with domestic parole. Instead it obtained a stay of the ruling (the decision was reversed by a higher court and is now under appeal) and continued to detain the Uyghurs at Guantanamo.
While Washington has dithered, China has been unwavering in its determination to deny the Uyghurs a refuge outside of Guantanamo or China.
Wherever the US diplomats went, according to the Times, they were dogged by the Chinese government: "The Chinese keep coming in behind us and scaring different countries with whom they have financial or trade relationships," said one administration official, who insisted on anonymity in discussing diplomatic issues.
Now the Chinese government has found an unlikely ally in its battle against the release of the Uyghur detainees: Newt Gingrich.
Supporters of the Uyghurs are guardedly optimistic that the Obama administration will ride out the political storm, mobilize its allies and advocates, and get the Uyghurs' release right on its second try.
But one observer wondered if the Uyghur detainees will be the ones who "turn the lights out at Guantanamo" - the last ones to leave, long after the rest of the camp's population had been dispersed.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.
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