Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Free the Gitmo 60

Free the Gitmo 60

By Sabin Willett
Special to

Wednesday, May 20th 2009, 9:17 AM

This month my Uighur clients began their eighth year in the Guantanamo Bay prison. Long ago they were cleared by both the military and our courts. They are neither our enemies, nor terrorists, nor criminals. But when press accounts surfaced that they might at long last be released, hysteria came over the Congress, and last week the House passed a bill that would bar their release here.

That would amount to a life sentence. They are dissident refugees from Communist China, and cannot be returned because of real fears of torture. In almost five years of trying, no other country will take them.

These men won their cases in court, and they were cleared by the military as nondangerous. That didn't matter. On news that they might at last be released, the most astonishing stories began to circulate about the men. That the men were Al Qaeda, for example. (They had never heard of Al Qaeda, and no one even alleged that before.) That they were part of something called the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement," a libel the courts rejected more than a year ago. That they were nevertheless dangerous, even though under President George Bush, the Justice Department told a federal judge that they had no evidence of dangerousness, and the military in 2004-05 approved the Uighurs for release to the civilian populations of our allies. That they advocated "Jihadism," "Sharia law," and so on, which was pure fiction, never before alleged, not true, just, as the President once said, "making stuff up."

This week Newt Gingrich weighed in, saying these men had "smashed a television" because it depicted "women with bare arms." Another lie. Just a flat-out falsehood, based on air. It never happened.

The truth is that five Uighur companions from Afghanistan have lived peacefully among civilian populations in the capitals of Albania and Sweden for three years now. But facts don't seem to matter when demagogues are whipping up hysteria.

In a larger sense, the Uighurs are beside the point. What this is really about is whether we Americans are serious when we boast that we care about freedom, or whether we are a small, narrow-chested people, easily panicked by demagogues like Gingrich.

There are about 60 men at Gitmo, like the Uighurs, who are neither enemies nor criminals in anyone's estimation. No law justifies their imprisonment. They have been held in a military prison for longer than any real enemy of the country was ever held before. So what are we going to do about them?

One answer is, free them. Because in this country we just don't capture and imprison people without a legal reason. If that is what we Americans believe, then we have to free 60 or so stateless people. We cannot expect that some other country is going to provide all the asylum grants. That is just not adult behavior. (Although reasonable adults would also conclude that if we would take some, allies would help with others. That's also how adult behavior works.)

The other answer is, the hell with them. They stay there forever. And I really do mean forever. The U.S. has pitched the Uighurs to allies for five years now, and China's influence is not exactly shrinking. We don't seriously think that a hysterical smear campaign about jihadism, Sharia law, and ETIM is going to persuade some other country that they are just peachy for its civilian populations, do we? "The hell with them," is what the House bill says.

If that's our view, we need to be honest with ourselves about our American values. We are fine with holding people in a prison forever, without any legal basis. That's who the 111th Congress thinks we are.

We talk a lot in this country about freedom. But talk is cheap. If we follow the House's actions, then we may care about security, but we don't give a damn about freedom.

Willett is a partner at Bingham McCutchen, which represents six Uighur prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Meet the real Uyghurs

Meet the real Uyghurs

Foreign Policy Magazine

By Nury A. Turkel

Wed, 05/20/2009 - 6:29pm

Newt Gingrich needs to read up before he defames my entire ethnic group.

Writing in the Washington Examiner last week, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich warned the Obama administration that a group of 17 Uyghurs, held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002, would be a threat to U.S. national security if transferred to American soil. "[T]hey are trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001," he wrote. "They have no place in American communities."

These claims are irresponsible and untrue. And the title of his work, "Let's NOT meet the Uyghurs" extends the accusation to all Uyghur people. Uyghurs are not terrorists; nor are they a threat. In fact, Uyghurs could be a natural U.S. ally.

Uyghurs are the Tibetans you haven't heard about. Ethnic Turkic people from the Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Uyghurs have long faced discrimination and persecution as a minority -- a fact recognized repeatedly by the U.S. Congress and State Department, which has noted China's insidious strategy of using the U.S. war on terror as pretext to oppress independent religious leaders and peaceful political dissenters. Uyghurs' struggle for self-rule is one against dictatorship and communism, not one to establish a sharia state through violence (as Gingrich claims, in a curious echo of Chinese government propaganda).

Nothing about the Uyghur cause involves hostility toward the United States or association with terrorist groups. In the case of the detained Uyghurs, this too has been recognized by the United States. In June 2008, a D.C. Circuit Court unanimously ruled that the U.S. government's designation of Huzaifa Parhat, one of the 17 Uyghurs at Guantánamo, as an enemy combatant was invalid. The U.S. government's case, they concluded, was insufficient, unreliable, and based on attenuated guilt-by-association reasoning. The panel found no evidence that Parhat was a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), that ETIM was associated with either al Qaeda or the Taliban, or that ETIM had ever fought against the United States. Supposed proof that detainees had undergone "terrorist training" is dubious at best. The detainees were able to break down and reassemble a single Kalashnikov rifle. To classify this experience as "terrorist training" would require a radical logic leap.

Every one of the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantánamo has repeatedly denied being part of ETIM, or of being sympathizers of al Qaeda or the Taliban. They should remain innocent -- both legally and in public discourse -- unless proven guilty.

As the discussion about the fate of these men goes forward, it is not the danger that the Uyghur detainees pose to the United States that is of greatest concern, but the danger China poses to detainees. Were it not for the grave threat of persecution that these men face from the Chinese government, they would have been returned home years ago. In just one example from 2002, a U.S. Department of Justice report cites claims that U.S. agents at Guantánamo collaborated with Chinese counterparts in the rough treatment of Uyghur detainees prior to scheduled interviews with the Chinese agents.

Finding a new home for the displaced Uyghurs is the U.S. government's duty. Gingrich finds preposterous the idea of relocating them to a place like, as he put it, "Fairfax Country Virginia, where there is already a sizable (non-terrorist) Uighur community." But why is the idea so preposterous? The Uyghurs are not a threat to U.S. communities. Just look at the five Uyghur companions who were released from Guantánamo in 2006 and have lived peaceably and productively in Europe for three years now.

I am a new citizen of the United States, but I know enough about the shining ideals that brought me -- and millions of other immigrants -- here to know that fearmongering rhetoric like Gingrich's is the real threat to America.

Nury A. Turkel is a Uyghur-American attorney in Washington.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central