Saturday, June 13, 2009

'We'd never heard of al Qaeda'

Freedon:Abdulla Abdulqadir, Salahidin Abdulahad, Khalil Manut, and Ablikim Turahun spent more than seven years in the United States' prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Photo by Mark Tatem

Salahidin Abdulahad and Ablikim Turahun.
Photo by Mark Tatem

Abdulla Abdulqadir
Photo by Mark Tatem

'We'd never heard of al Qaeda'

By Jonathan Kent

The four Chinese Muslims released from Guantánamo Bay to come to Bermuda say they had never even heard of al Qaeda until they arrived at the US prison camp where they have been confined for the past seven years.

And in an interview with The Royal Gazette, the ethnic Uighurs said they had never seen pictures of what happened on September 11, 2001, but they did not approve of the terrorist attacks that killed about 3,000 people in the US.

The four men — Abdulla Abdulqadir, Salahidin Abdulahad, Ablikim Turahun and Khalil Mamut — spoke last night of their excitement at being free in Bermuda and that their experience since arriving at 3 a.m. on Thursday morning had been of "a small country of people with big hearts".

Bleary-eyed, weary but elated with the excitement of their liberation, the men denied ever having been terrorists and spoke of long stretches of solitary confinement in the spartan cells of Guantánamo.

Their worst moments in the camp in the US-owned enclave of Cuba, they said, had come when the Americans allowed a visit by Chinese military officials to interrogate them for two weeks. The Uighurs say they were persecuted in their homeland by the Chinese authorities and fled over the border into Afghanistan to escape. They denied ever having gone to a terrorist training camp there.

"That is a totally false accusation," said Mr. Abdulahad, speaking through an interpreter. "We were just fleeing Chinese suppression when we went to Afghanistan.

"We did not go to a military or terrorist training camp. We were in a little village and stayed in some abandoned buildings there. If you saw it you would know it's ridiculous to call this place a military training camp."

The Uighurs had their own country until it was seized by China in 1949, the men said, and they have been an oppressed minority for decades.

One example of this oppression was that a mother who had two children and who was pregnant would be subject to a forced abortion at the hands of the authorities. Abortion is against their religion. "We wanted to go to a peaceful country in Europe, but because of the difficulties with visas and passports, we had to do the next best thing, which was to cross the border into Afghanistan, which was much easier to do," Mr. Abdulahad said.

When the American bombing of Afghanistan started after 9/11, they fled into Pakistan and say they were tricked by Pakistani tribesman, who handed them over to the US military for cash. They vigorously denied that they had ever had any association with the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda.

"We had not seen anything of the 9/11 attacks, but from what we have heard, it was a terrible tragedy that happened to the American people," Mr. Abdulahad said.

"We are very sympathetic with the families of those who lost their lives.

"We'd never heard of al Qaeda until we came to Guantánamo and heard about them from our interrogators. "From what we have heard about them, they are an extremely radical group, with totally different ideals from ours. We are a peace-loving people."

The men said for a year of their imprisonment they were held in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day in a cramped cell with no natural light, and were allowed outside for a couple of hours a day in a three-metre by five-metre "recreation area".

They believed the Americans soon realised they were not terrorists and the men said they were not tortured at the hands of the US guards. In 2002, things got worse for a short period, when Chinese officials were allowed into the camp to question them. The men's lawyer, Sabin Willett, of Bingham McCutchen in Boston, believes the Americans allowed the Chinese in to try to secure the support of China, a fellow member of the UN Security Council, for the US invasion of Iraq, which took place in 2003.

Mr. Abdulahad recalled: "The Chinese delegation treated us very badly.

"They brought me out and interrogated me for six hours straight with no food or rest.

"They took me back to my cell and I was extremely tired. But then they came straight back to my cell and took me out for another six hours of interrogation. It went on that way for one-and-a-half days."

Mr. Turahun added: "When the Chinese came they wanted to take my picture, but I didn't want them to, because I was afraid they would harm my family.

"But one of the American guards grabbed my beard and the other held my hands behind my back so they could take the picture."

The men did not want to talk about their families.

The men were detained long after the US military had cleared them for release and won a legal challenge before the US courts last year.

After that, they were moved to a less restrictive existence at Camp Iguana, a separate camp in the Guantánamo complex.

The men are delighted to be in Bermuda and grateful to the Government for taking them when many larger countries refused.

"Bermuda had the courage to step up and do this, "Mr. Abdulahad said. "It's a small place but the people have extremely big hearts.

"We want to live a peaceful and beautiful life here and we are ready to work hard.

"People know we have been in Guantánamo and they have a picture of us which is very different from who we are. When people get to know us they will know what kind of people we are. We are peace-loving people."

Mr. Willett told a story about how the men had gone into a local store to buy clothes.

The radio was on inside and voices on a talk show were complaining about "terrorists" not being welcome in Bermuda.

The storekeeper looked at the men and quickly realised who they must be and said: "Well, I welcome you here."

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