Guantanamo Uyghurs Ordered Freed
  • Tue, 10/07/2008 - 12:00

Radio Free Asia
October 07, 2008

 The court house in Washington DC where, on October 7, 2008, a U.S. District Judge ruled that 17 Uyghurs held in Guantanamo Bay must be freed because they are no longer considered enemy combatants.

WASHINGTON—A U.S. judge today ordered the United States to release immediately 17 ethnic Uyghurs from China who have been held at Guantanamo Bay for almost seven years, in a move immediately welcomed by the Uyghur exile groups.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled that the Uyghurs, Muslims from China's northwestern Xinjiang region, must be freed because they are no longer considered enemy combatants.

"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful," Urbina said. He ordered their release by Friday in Washington, and he also set a hearing for next week to determine where they should be settled.

Whether President George W. Bush's administration would appeal the decision wasn't immediately known.

Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, welcomed the judge's order and called it a victory for millions of Uyghurs inside China, some of whom China has labeled terrorists committed to violent separatism.

"The Chinese government is trying to portray all Uyghurs as terrorists just because there are Uyghurs detained in Guantanamo. They try to classify any kind of fight by Uyghurs as terrorist activity, and they are trying to exterminate our ethnic group," Kadeer said.

"But today, the western world, and especially the United States through its Constitution, has proven that they are innocent. Now they will be released from the cages of Guantanamo to freedom," she said.

"Today we heard a voice from the court saying that Uyghurs are not terrorists. Those who have fought for the freedom of the Uyghur people wherever they are detained, even in Afghanistan—they are not a threat to the world," she said.

Terrorism alleged

Several of the Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo Bay were living in camps in Afghanistan in 2001 when airstrikes drove them across the border to Pakistan, where they were taken captive and turned over to U.S. forces.

The men were held in a military prison in Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years. Cleared for release in 2004, the U.S. government has been unable to find them a home.

 Rebiya Kadeer, seen here with her husband in front of the court on October 7, said: "Today we heard a voice from the court saying that Uyghurs are not terrorists." Beijing has demanded repatriation of all Uyghurs held at the naval prison in Cuba and most countries who might otherwise take them in fear diplomatic reprisals.

The Chinese government says the men are members of the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing and Washington regard as a terrorist organization. Beijing blames ETIM for a series of violent attacks inside China in recent years.

Some sent to Albania

Five Uyghurs detained in Guantanamo Bay were released and given refuge by the Albanian government in 2006, despite protests from Beijing.

One of the detainees sent to Albania, Ababehir Qasim, said earlier that the men would have preferred to remain in custody in Guantanamo rather than return to China.

“Sometimes we thought that if that were the only option, instead of going back to China we would be better off staying there [in Guantanamo]... Going back to China would more than double the suffering of the Uyghur people’s spirits.”

“So our people wouldn’t suffer, we thought that staying at Guantanamo would be better. The time it took to apply for political asylum became longer and longer, and we heard from our lawyer that the Chinese government was pressuring other governments not to accept us. Naturally, we tried to comfort each other,” he said.

Chinese position

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said before the court hearing that Beijing wants the men sent back.

“China has urged the U.S. to repatriate these Chinese terrorist suspects to China on many occasions. We hope the U.S. will take our position seriously and repatriate these persons to China sooner rather than later,” he said.

Uyghurs twice enjoyed short-lived independence after declaring the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, and many oppose Beijing’s rule in the region.

Chinese officials have said extremists among the region’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghur population plotted terrorist strikes during the Beijing Olympics.

More reaction

Henryk Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project also welcomed news of the men's release.

“We can see that the Chinese government's assertions, that somehow the Uyghurs detained in Guantanamo were somehow linked to global terror, have all been denied by the United States courts here. This is a wonderful, historic day for Uyghur people,” Szadziewski said.

"What we're looking at here is a decision that says that Uyghur people are not interested in pursuing their cause for increased democracy and human rights through violent means.”

Original reporting by RFA's Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.