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.


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