Monday, September 21, 2009

60 years after revolution, ethnic tension still plagues China

60 years after revolution, ethnic tension still plagues China

By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
URUMQI, China — China's leadership says it has calmed this city after almost 200 people were stabbed, bludgeoned or beaten to death in July riots and more violent protests this month forced the removal of top officials.

Despite the assurances from Beijing, however, Urumqi remains on edge less than two weeks before the 60th anniversary celebration of China's communist regime. The region's main ethnic groups, Han Chinese and Uighurs — Turkic-speaking Muslims — are locked in a cycle of violence in this enclave of more than 2.3 million people near China's western border.

Hundreds of soldiers with automatic rifles and riot shields are stationed on street corners. Pickups zoom through the streets blaring propaganda from loudspeakers, exalting the government and demanding cooperation.

Urumqi (pronounced urum-CHEE) is supposed to be a testament to China's unstoppable progress, the ability to take an ancient trading post of more than a dozen ethnic communities and erect over them a modern city of glittering towers dedicated to commerce and tourism.

Beneath the large red banners that blanket the city with slogans such as "Ethnic unity is a blessing and ethnic separatism is a curse," though, relations between Uighurs and Hans are in tatters.

"It's a mess here," said Su Xiaomei, a Han woman who owns a small restaurant in central Urumqi. "Many Uighurs used to come to my restaurant, and I felt fine about that, but now I feel angry when I see them. . . . We try to stay as far away from them as possible."

Uighurs complain that a police crackdown is targeting them with detention sweeps and intimidation.

"The police and military have arrested many Uighurs, especially young men with beards," said a Uighur man named Qassim, a community elder who like all Uighurs interviewed for this story asked that only his first name be used because he fears police retaliation. "The local officials have told us not to talk with outsiders; they say if we do, we will be arrested."

A Uighur protest in July, sparked by reports of Hans killing Uighurs in a southern province, grew into a standoff with police and then a rampage that left the bodies of innocent Han civilians slumped and pouring blood in the streets.

Mobs of Hans responded with clubs and knives, hunting down any Uighurs they could find. Earlier this month, rumors spread that Uighurs were stabbing Hans with hypodermic needles; more protests broke out and the city's Communist Party chief and the region's police director were fired.

On a hillside overlooking the high-rises and hotels of Urumqi, a Uighur man named Talip sat recently in a neighborhood of crumbling houses and wept as he talked about Han police brutality. He said the police dragged him from his home to a local station, where a Han officer assaulted him and demanded that he confess to taking part in the riots.

After several rounds of being punched and kicked as he denied participating in the bloodshed, Talip said, he signed and put his thumbprint on a statement for police files.

"I could hear other Uighurs screaming in the next room; they were getting beaten, too," said Talip, a beefy man in his late 20s whose lips trembled so hard during parts of the interview that he could barely speak. "They treated us like garbage. Of course we are angry. . . . Of course it's affected our relationship with Han Chinese people."

Another Uighur man who was in custody the same evening confirmed Talip's account. The man also said that he was roughed up for hours before he was forced to sign a piece of paper.

Local police and political officials didn't respond to multiple requests for interviews.

A McClatchy reporter reached Talip and others in the Uighur community through a series of intermediaries. Police took one of them in for questioning the next day, and ordered him to describe his interactions with the reporter. Another of the men who helped McClatchy said that he'd had an experience afterward, presumably with police, that he wouldn't describe but that had terrified him.

Chinese officials have announced the arrests of dozens of men and women — the names released so far suggest that they're mostly Uighurs — for alleged needle stabbings, assaults, conspiracies and, last week, a reported bombing plot. Courts have sentenced at least seven men and women, all Uighurs, to between seven and 15 years in prison. None of the evidence against them has been made public.

A Uighur man named Umar, who said his Han boss had fired him after the riots, said that the Chinese government wouldn't have to worry about Uighur unrest much longer: "Many young Uighur men have been arrested, and many others were killed during the riots, so there aren't many Uighur men around to start a fight."

Like other Uighurs, Umar bristles at what he considers Han encroachment on his city, which Uighurs say has included Hans taking over most jobs and the government.

In the past several decades, the central government has sent more than 800,000 specialists to the area, mainly to Urumqi, to "rapidly change the situation of economic backwardness and lack of talents," according to an official pamphlet made available to journalists.

As a result of those and many other newcomers, while Uighurs still outnumber Hans in the region, Urumqi now has fewer than 300,000 Uighurs and more than 1.6 million Hans. The Hans accuse the Uighurs of being unappreciative of the progress and assistance Beijing's efforts have produced.

"The Chinese government subsidizes and supports these poor Uighurs and their children to try to win their support for government policy," said Liu Jie, who runs a convenience store. "Any rational person should appreciate this."

Chinese officials are trying to manage the situation with a combination of strict control and a propaganda push that blames ethnic rivalry on interference by Uighurs who live in the West.

Residents who have Internet access can pull up Web pages about local tourism and the harmonious Urumqi's promising financial outlook, but access to outside sites that could bring nongovernment-approved material has been shut down. Cell phone users are unable to send text messages, and all international communications are blocked.

Locals can call other parts of China, but the calls are monitored, and any suspicious conversations may result in a visit by the police.

A Chinese police official, his uniform neatly pressed, walked out of a conference room with ornate chandeliers and flashing cameras and paused a moment last week to answer a question about ethnic tensions in his city.

"Relationships between different ethnicities here have always been good," Huang Yabo, the director of the regional criminal investigation unit, said as he waited for the elevator. "There's no problem between different ethnicities."

After a few more words on how any local unrest was an overseas plot, Huang glided off through the Hoi Tak hotel, a five-star establishment where bellhops in matching hats and jackets carry luggage with white gloves, and young women in tight clothes and high heels sing pop songs in the lounge.

Everything, Huang said, will be OK — the Chinese government has it handled.

(Tom Lasseter, McClatchy's Moscow bureau chief, is on temporary assignment to Beijing.)


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Standoff Over Death in Custody

Standoff Over Death in Custody

In China’s tense Xinjiang region, could a suspicious death spark more ethnic violence?

Chinese paramilitary police trucks drive through downtown Urumqi, July 9, 2009.
HONG KONG—Relatives of a man who died in police custody in China’s remote Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are in a tense standoff with authorities over their demand for an inquiry into how he died, villagers and the local police chief said.
One villager, contacted by telephone, said eight trucks of soldiers and two other armed vehicles had surrounded the man’s family home in Lengger [in Chinese, Langan] village in Qorghas [in Chinese, Huocheng]county, Ili prefecture.
Surrounding streets were blockaded, and another witness said police told him to remain inside when he tried to walk several blocks to Tursun’s family home.
“The police are asking us to bury the body early in the morning, otherwise they said they will bury him themselves,” Haji Memet, a relative of Shohret Tursun, 31, said. “We want to find out how he was killed.”
“We are asking the authorities to investigate—we want photos taken of his bruised body, we want justice, we want whoever killed our son to be punished,” he said.
Police returned Tursun’s body to his family at 2 p.m. Saturday, relatives said.
Deadly violence
Tursun, a member of the Uyghur ethnic minority, was among some 40 men from Qorghas detained around the time of deadly protests July 5 in the regional capital, Urumqi.
The protests by Uyghurs, a largely Muslim Turkic people, followed alleged official mishandling of earlier ethnic clashes in far-away Guangdong province.
The July 5 protest sparked days of deadly rioting in Urumqi, pitting Uyghurs against majority Han Chinese, and ending with a death toll of almost 200, by the government’s tally.
Badly disfigured

A map of China's northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Credit: RFA
The Langer police chief, who identified himself as Enver, said police were trying to convince the family to bury Tursun early Sunday.
The village imam, Alim Kari, described Tursun’s body as badly disfigured but said he was required to urge the family to bury Tursun.
“I saw the dead body—it was bruised and dark all over,” Kari said. “All the family was crying…his mother was slapping herself. The whole neighborhood is in chaos.”
“I don’t know how the body was injured, how it has so many bruises. The authorities are asking the imam, the elders, relatives, and neighbors to persuade the family to bury him. I am a peasant and I don’t know much about the law.”
“I have to do what the government asks me to do…and I have to believe them. We are working hard to persuade the family to bury Shohret Tursun early Sunday morning,” Kari said.
“After the family’s strong opposition, the authorities agreed to bury him Sunday morning. This has been confirmed and the funeral attendants have been selected and invited,” he said.
Earlier death alleged
About 10 days ago, relatives said, Tursun—along with Pazilat Akbar, Rabigul, Eli Hesenjan, and more than 35 others—were transferred from Urumqi to the Qorghas county jail.
Another villager, also contacted by telephone, said another man, 22-year-old Dilshat Ismayil, was beaten to death by police July 29 after he ran away from police trying to detain him.
That account couldn’t immediately be confirmed.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Xinjiang is a strategically crucial vast desert territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
The region has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas-producing region.
Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service, translation by Alim Kerim. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.
Copyright © 1998-2009 Radio Free Asia. All rights reserved.

How China Wins and Loses Xinjiang

How China Wins and Loses Xinjiang
By Christina Larson, New America Foundation
Foreign Policy | July 9, 2009
China routinely looks more vulnerable from the inside than the outside, and its volatile minority affairs are just another example.

The Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program
China, Foreign Policy, Minorities

On Sunday, more than 1,000 Uighurs clashed with police in the western Chinese city of Urumqi -- marking one of the country's bloodiest ethnic conflicts in recent years.
The government's crackdown on the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that has long chafed under Beijing's rule, was nasty, brutish, and short. Overnight curfews were imposed. Thousands of police officers dispersed. President Hu Jintao left the G-8 summit in Europe to focus on putting out fires at home. But not all aspects of China's policies toward Uighurs and other minorities are characterized by such precision.
If you visit Xinjiang, the restive province that's home to China's roughly 8 million Uighurs, you'll realize there's a gap -- often a chasm -- between official intention on minority issues and what happens in practice. Sometimes the government's missteps appear to be the product of malevolence, sometimes of ignorance. The results are both tragic and absurd.
On bad days, the tragedy is obvious: More than 150 people, Uighur and Han Chinese, have died in recent riots. But there is also a thread of dark comedy, a continual drama of miscommunication and miscalculation, as Han authorities try to hamstring the practice of Islam and local politicians try to at once appease and suppress the Uighurs.
On paper, Islam is one of China's five officially recognized and legal religions. And the central government, in order to foster a "harmonious society," aims to help all minority peoples prosper alongside their Han neighbors. But in practice, ethnic policies as implemented alienate and inflame the largely Muslim population of Xinjiang. Tensions run high, liable to erupt at even distant provocations. (The spark that lit last Sunday's riots was the mistreatment and murder of Uighur factory workers in faraway Guangdong province.)
Recently, Robert D. Kaplan argued in The Atlantic that, on purely pragmatic grounds, in the case of Sri Lanka, repression worked. Other writers have recently made similar assertions in the case of Xinjiang. One line of argumentation indeed holds that China's uncompromising stance toward its ethnic populations may be unsavory to Westerners, but is in fact the surest way to keep the peace.
If only Beijing's iron fist were so dexterous. China's government is indeed effective at disbanding protests, building skyscrapers, and staging high-profile spectacles like the Olympics. It's also proved relatively adept, to its credit, at managing the financial crisis and keeping factories churning.
But you don't have to look far for signs of breakdown or miscoordination. Take the embarrassing wavering over Green Dam, the much-maligned Internet nanny program; or last year's scandals over tainted milk, an economic and international public relations disaster for Beijing. China routinely looks more vulnerable from the inside than the outside, and its volatile minority affairs are just another example.
Ultimately, China is more adept at creating fearsome impressions in the moment -- grand like the Olympic Opening Ceremony, or cruel like the crackdown on protestors -- than at maintenance. When you look close, it's apparent how much muddle there is beneath the surface, especially when authorities attempt to formulate policy around something they don't truly understand.
The Uighurs, as well as Islam itself, mystify China's secular leadership. In Xinjiang, a vast western province -- three times the size of France and bordering eight countries -- China's long-term policy toward minorities is puzzled in principle, capricious in execution, and the result is much suffering on the part of both Uighur and Han. Far from containing tension, the heavy-handed approach fans the flames. It is a brutal kind of confusion.
Xinjiang has been called the "Texas of China," and it certainly exhibits a rough-and-tumble frontier feel. Oil and mineral wealth have in recent years attracted Beijing's attention, and an influx of Han businessmen, swashbucklers, and entrepreneurs migrating from east China. When the western desert territory was incorporated into the People's Republic, the Chinese leaders selected as their provincial capital Urumqi, a city undistinguished by landmarks or history. In a region with a long and storied past, and a landscape dotted by historic mosques and the sites of famous battles and tombs of Uighur kings, the new capital was a relative blank slate. It seemed a place that new settlers could, in effect, start over.
But, on the face of it, official policy in Xinjiang is not to erase Uighur history or identity. Indeed, special efforts are made to highlight certain aspects of the past. Airport gift shops sell books printed by Han publishing houses about the charming customs of Xinjiang's minority groups. A stream of tourists, international and Han Chinese, comes to visit the historic old towns in cities like Kashgar, located in southwest Xinjiang. The local government is flirting with, or at least trying to make a few yuan off of, what the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in London described to the BBC's Radio 4 as the region's "multiculturalism."
Outside Urumqi, the troubled provincial capital where Sunday's riots took place, new highway signs are posted in both Mandarin characters and the Uighur language, written in an Arabic script. But there's a danger of getting lost if one tries to follow those signs. If you ask the local Uighurs, they say that what passes for signage in their language is often nonsensical transliterations, a version of "Chinglish" in Uighur. There's ornamental appeal, sans utility -- evidently Uighurs weren't consulted in planning or proof-reading.
Special funds are allocated by the central government for religious affairs and poverty reduction bursaries in Xinjiang, as in other western provinces. But how are they spent? Take the "Xinjiang Minority Street" project in downtown Urumqi. It's a five-story market complex with an exotic-looking exterior, dominated by pale yellow turrets and fanciful archways, with numerous stalls and winding staircases inside. A placard by the entrance proudly announces that it was built in 2002 for the benefit of Xinjiang's minority people, as a place to sell their ethnic handicrafts, for the hefty sum of 160 million yuan (around $23.4 million).
But inside, most of the stalls, if they were ever occupied, are now empty. A few are home to Han jewelers selling jade trinkets. The paint is beginning to peel. A Chinese hostess stands outside a deserted restaurant with décor resembling how Walt Disney might imagine Arabia. In short, this is what a boondoggle looks like. Or rather, it's how local officials and contractors conceive of what Uighurs want (or at least how they can capture funds Beijing sets aside for minority affairs), without much consultation with Uighurs themselves. Sadly, the building sits adjacent to what is in fact the heart of the city's Uighur district, where families live in one-story shanties of brick and mud that could badly use money for repairs.
The building, a work of pure architectural and promotional fantasy, epitomizes the vast disconnect between how Han officialdom envisions China's minorities and how Uighurs see themselves, and Islam.
Last year I was in Kashgar during October's Golden Week -- an extended national holiday commemorating the founding of the People's Republic of China. My hotel sat on the grounds of the former Russian consulate -- a reminder of when Western powers fought over influence in Central Asia. That afternoon Chinese state television was showing continuous coverage of the Golden Week celebrations, including parades of China's officially-recognized minority peoples in bright costumes, singing and dancing, and saluting the legacy of New China.
But outside, residents of Kashgar were gathering to mark a rather different festival: the end of Ramadan, the month-long fasting period for Muslims. The final day of Ramadan, when the fast is broken and people celebrate, is called Rozi Festival. Annually, 10,000 men and their families from across southwestern Xinjiang travel to Kashgar to commemorate the holiday outside the ancient Id Kah mosque.
The sight of thousands of devout Muslims kneeling on unfurled prayer mats in a ceremony unsupervised by the state of course makes local authorities deeply nervous. The government hasn't razed the mosque or explicitly prohibited worship, but it has recently erected a giant TV screen in the public square facing the mosque. Kazakh soap operas are now screened at regular intervals throughout the day, timed to coincide with daily services. Unsurprisingly, this hasn't had much impact on mosque attendance.
One night I asked a Uighur man headed into Id Kah mosque about the TV. "If they put it somewhere else, people would be happy," he said. "But not here -- here it makes us angry."
Miscalculations about Uighurs and their religion have graver implications, too.
Beijing claims that new industry and oil exploration in Xinjiang is bringing wealth into the region, benefiting both Han and Uighurs. Yet according to the Asian Development Bank, income inequality in Xinjiang remains the highest in all of China. Hiring discrimination is a substantial barrier, often fueled by the Chinese Communist Party's perplexed attitude toward religion. "You have a party that is primarily Han and officially atheist," explains Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana University. "The party doctrine is founded on notion that religion is a mystification. It requires its members to be atheist; any party member or teacher in Xinjiang must renounce Islam."
The vast majority of the new jobs in Xinjiang are state-affiliated: Construction crews, bank clerks, police officers, nurses and school-teachers all work for the government (there isn't much private business on the frontier). Many of those positions are off-limits to publicly observant Muslims. The state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the largest development company in the province, for instance, not long ago filled, by mandate, 800 of 840 new job openings with Han Chinese.
Such policies exacerbate inequality and rile ethnic tensions. But do they also help the government squash would-be separatist movements?
Most analysts do not believe that religion itself, or radical Islam, animates pro-independence factions in Xinjiang. To target actual separatists, more precise strategies could be envisioned. "The way to respond to a small minority in a society is not to prevent the religiosity of an entire population," Bovingdon explains. "That's counterproductive, and makes plenty of people resentful."
And yet, that appears to be precisely the strategy the local government has adopted. Since 2002, when the U.S.-led "war on terror" gave China cover for greater surveillance of its own Muslim populations, the Xinjiang public security bureau has increased crackdowns on what it deems, with alarmingly broad brushstrokes, the "three evils" of "separatism, religious extremism and terrorism."
In practice, this means that loudspeakers in mosques are banned in Urumqi; families hosting dinner parties during religious festivals must register with the government; the interiors of even small rural mosques are plastered with tawdry government propaganda, and routinely visited by Han inspectors (who don't bother to doff their shoes when they enter and check log books). Although Islam is not officially outlawed, Uighurs are subject to a litany of intrusions on daily religious life, which leads them to see the government as an antagonistic force. As one man in Kashgar told me, "Because I am born a Uighur, I am a terrorist -- that is what the government thinks?"
The authorities' overreach is also clear in the way security policies target children. During certain religious holidays, anyone under 18 is barred from entering a mosque. In Kashgar, communal meals are imposed at school during the fast period of Ramadan, and attendance is required at special assemblies timed to coincide with Friday prayers. There's no reason to treat every Uighur child like an aspiring terrorist or separatist, unless the aim is truly to stamp out religion from next generation. But this tactic would seem a high-stakes gamble for the CCP.
Andrew Nathan, chair of the political science department at Columbia University, explains, "This is the Chinese style toward religion -- the government is very suspicious of religion. In Xinjiang, separatism is the thing they want to avoid. They conceive of the separatists as people who are religious fundamentalists. They're making a logical leap of faith. It produces resistance. It produces deep resentment."
And there are some indicators that China's attempts to curb Islam in the name of assimilating the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are woefully backfiring. Even as the local government has tightened its "counterterrorism" policies in recent years, the U.S. Congressional Commission on China has determined, the level of unrest in the province has actually increased. Last year saw a string of bus bombings and attacks on police in southwest Xinjiang; Sunday's bloody riots in Urumqi were the worst in many years.
"China's attempts to suppress Islam," a recent Human Rights Watch report concludes, "is a policy that is likely to alienate Uighurs, drive religious expression further underground, and encourage the development of more radicalized and oppositional forms of religious identity."
Commenting from a different angle, Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, finds broader regional security implications. "A lot of Chinese problems do appear to be a bit of their own making," he said. "They justify a lot of what they're doing in the name of counterterrorism, but we fear it might also exacerbate a terrorist threat. Of course, the same could be said for some U.S. policies -- look at Iraq and Afghanistan."
Misunderstanding the Uighur culture and religion, the Chinese authorities fear the worst. And their current policies seem more likely to foster resistance and resentment than peace and passivity. Perhaps the backlash is already beginning.
Copyright 2009, Foreign Policy

2 more Uighur detainees at Gitmo heading to Palau

2 more Uighur detainees at Gitmo heading to Palau

By JONATHAN KAMINSKY (AP) – 26 minutes ago

KOROR, Palau — Two more Chinese Muslim detainees held at Guantanamo Bay have agreed to be relocated to the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, their lawyer said Saturday, bringing to six the total who will resettle.

Palau has offered 13 ethnic Uighurs held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba a chance to move there — an arrangement that would ease President Barack Obama's plans to close the contentious facility.

The men have been held by the U.S. since their capture in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. The Pentagon determined last year they were not "enemy combatants" but they have been in legal limbo ever since. China regards the Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) as terrorist suspects and wants them returned.

But Uighur activists claim the detainees face persecution or death if they are returned there, and U.S. officials have struggled to find a country to take them in.

"Two more of our clients have agreed to go to Palau as the U.S. continues to look for a permanent home for them," Eric Tirschwell, the U.S.-based lawyer for four of the detainees, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Their acceptance means six of the detained Chinese Muslims have now decided to move to the mid-Pacific state, which offered in early June to take in the Turkic Muslims from far western China.

That same month, four Uighur detainees were resettled in Bermuda.

Five of the detainees have declined even to meet with Palau officials.

The relocation agreements need U.S. Congressional approval, a process that is expected to take about two weeks.

"We are hopeful that this long overdue move to freedom will happen as quickly as possible and are doing whatever we can to make that happen," Tirschwell said in an e-mail.

There was no immediate response to requests for comment from Palauan officials or from the U.S. State Department.

Palau is a developing country of 20,000 that is dependent on U.S. development funds.

No Uighurs currently live on Palau, which has a Muslim population of about 400, mostly migrant workers from Bangladesh.

Made up of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets, Palau is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Guantanamo Envoy: U.S. Should Have Taken Cleared Prisoners; Some Should Never Have Been Held

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Andy Worthington
Andy Worthington

Journalist and author of "The Guantanamo Files"
Posted: September 17, 2009 09:34 AM

Guantanamo Envoy: U.S. Should Have Taken Cleared Prisoners; Some Should Never Have Been Held

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Daniel Fried came across as an eminently reasonable man placed in a disturbingly unreasonable position by his bosses. A senior diplomat, who was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs for four years, Fried was plucked from his job in March 2009 to become the Obama administration's Special Envoy to Guantánamo, serving as a member of the interagency Task Force charged with reviewing the cases of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, and responsible, primarily, for finding countries to accept dozens of prisoners who have been cleared for release, either by the Task Force, often based on decisions already taken by Bush-era military review boards, or by the courts, after successful habeas corpus petitions.

These are men who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears that they will face torture, or further arbitrary imprisonment, on their return, although Fried is also responsible for trying to broker a deal with Yemen, whose nationals make up around 40 percent of the remaining 225 prisoners. Fried spoke mainly to the BBC about negotiations with Europe, but it is apparent that attempts to overcome the long-standing failure to secure a deal with the Yemeni government remains one of the most difficult tasks that he faces.

In an interview for Radio 4's Today program, which was partly filmed and televised on BBC News, Fried gave Jon Manel a largely spin-free account of the problems he faces, some of which have been exacerbated by the U.S. government's unwillingness -- or inability -- to resettle some cleared prisoners on the U.S. mainland.

To my mind, President Obama missed a golden opportunity to bring 17 prisoners to the U.S.. in his early days in office. These men, the Uighurs (Muslims who had fled oppression in China's Xinjiang province, and who were sold to U.S. forces after being betrayed by Pakistani villagers, following their flight from Afghanistan) had been cleared of any involvement with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or any form of international terrorism by the Bush administration and by the U.S. courts, but the President wavered, allowing Guantánamo's supporters in Congress (scaremongers inspired by the hateful and false rhetoric of former Vice President Dick Cheney) to gain the upper hand, eventually persuading Congress to pass legislation blocking the transfer of any cleared prisoners to the U.S. mainland.

Fried began by explaining that his job was "miserable," because he was "cleaning up a problem" inherited from the Bush administration, which had nothing to do with advancing any positive aspects of U.S. policy. "It's not like we're advancing liberty or making peace," he said. He added that working out what to do with the remaining prisoners is "a huge problem and a complicated one," but according to Manel, although he said that he would "not criticize Congress," he stated, unambiguously, "It is fair to say, as just an objective statement, that the U.S. could resettle more detainees [worldwide], had we been willing to take in some."

The interview was also notable for the following frank exchange about the perception of the remaining prisoners as "the worst of the worst," which included, I believe, the first public admission, by a senior Obama administration official, that some of the prisoners were nothing more than low-level Taliban recruits, in an inter-Muslim civil war (with the Northern Alliance) that preceded the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and that they should not have been in Guantánamo for the last seven years:

Daniel Fried: The detainees in Guantánamo run a spectrum. Some really are awful. Some qualify as "the worst of the worst," and we're going to put those on trial. Some, frankly, should not have been in Guantánamo for the past seven years.

Jon Manel: So they were innocent?

Daniel Fried: Innocent, guilt ... I look at their files and some of them seem relatively benign, and I have in mind the Uighurs, in particular, but others ...

Jon Manel: They're the minority from China ...

Daniel Fried: That's right, the Uighur minority from China, but if I had to describe -- if there's such a thing as an average Guantánamo detainee, it's someone who was a volunteer, a low-level trainee or a very low-level fighter in a very bad cause, but not a hardened terrorist, not an organizer. Now it is those people whom we're asking Europeans to take a look at, and each government has to evaluate the background of each individual and make a decision.

Despite his criticism of the implications of the failure to accept any cleared prisoners into the United States, Fried did make the point that "parliamentarians in Europe" -- as well as the U.S. - "have raised questions about security, and we have to respect those opinions," although he was also concerned to publicize the successful resettlement of four of the Uighurs in Bermuda (in June), even though it had apparently brought him into conflict with the British government, because, as the BBC described it, "Bermuda is a British overseas territory and Britain was not informed until the last minute."

"The British government, it is fair to say, cannot be considered part of the deal. This was worked out between the Americans and the Bermudans," Fried told Manel, adding, "I will say that I've been admonished by the British government in very clear terms." He insisted, however, that the deal had been successful. "We are very grateful to the Bermudan government and the behavior of the four Uighurs has been exemplary, which really bolsters our contention that they were not any kind of threat," he said, adding, "These are four people who are enjoying freedom who would otherwise be in Guantánamo."

This was an important point to make, although I maintain that the Uighurs' "exemplary" behavior, which "bolsters" the government's "contention that they were not any kind of threat," would have had a far more powerful impact if it had happened in Washington D.C., where American citizens would have been able to appreciate, first-hand, that the Uighurs are not, and have never been terrorists.

In conclusion, Fried told Manel that he was "confident" that the President's January deadline for closing Guantánamo would be met, although he could not guarantee it. "President Obama's timetable is what we've got," he said, "we don't have Plan Bs, we're looking at that timetable. We've got a lot of work to do, we need help getting this done, and we're going to be working hard at it. But you're not going to have Guantánamo II. Whatever solution we come up with, it will be one based firmly on the rule of law and transparency."

Fried's interview coincided with an announcement that Hungary is preparing to take a cleared prisoner from Guantánamo, to add to those already accepted by the UK (Binyam Mohamed, a British resident, in February), France (Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian, in May), and Portugal (Mohammed al-Tumani and Moammar Dokhan, both Syrians, last month). Other countries who have agreed to take cleared prisoners are Belgium, Ireland, Italy (although with some disturbing conditions), and Spain, and discussions are apparently ongoing with both Lithuania and Switzerland.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.

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