Poised for release -- but to where?

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Hozaifa Parhat, a fruit seller from China’s Muslim west, spoke passionately before a Guantanamo tribunal about his love for America and swore he never planned to fight the United States.

The Chinese, however, were another matter.

“I left my country to try to get something, get back and liberate my people and get our country independence,” the ethnic Uighur testified in November 2004.

Seven years after he was detained near Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Parhat and 16 fellow Chinese Uighurs appear likely to be the first of the 245 prisoners still at the U.S. military prison in Cuba to be set free under the Obama administration.


President Obama has made closing the camp a priority, and federal courts have so far ruled that the Uighur detainees present no threat to the United States.

But freed to where? China is insisting that the Uighurs be sent home to face trial for separatist activities. It has further intimated that any country that offers them political asylum will in effect be harboring dangerous terrorists.

“On the issue of the Chinese terrorist suspects detained in Guantanamo, we have repeatedly stated that we oppose any country receiving these people,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said this month.

How the Uighurs are handled could play a role in defining what kind of relationship the Obama administration forges with Beijing in its early months. China has made it clear that it wants to be considered an ally in the battle against terrorism, which is coming closer to China’s borders as the administration shifts focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The fate of the Uighurs also creates a sticky situation for Washington’s Western allies, which have applauded Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo prison but don’t want to jeopardize their trade ties with China. Germany, Canada and Sweden have been mentioned as possibly offering asylum to the Uighurs.

“Nobody is going to want to take the Uighurs because of the Chinese pressure,” said Parhat’s Boston-based attorney, Sabin Willitt. “Every time we got an audience with the third deputy assistant minister of [any country], we always found the Chinese minister was ahead of us, having had a full lunch with the foreign minister.”


The Uighurs live primarily on the wild northwestern steppes of China in a region officially known as Xinjiang but called Turkestan by the Uighurs. Beijing has come under widespread criticism from the United States and others for its repression of rights and religious freedom there.

People familiar with the talks within the administration said there was little chance the White House would agree to return the Uighurs to China, given the widespread belief that they might be tortured or executed if sent back.

But because of allies’ reluctance to accept the refugees, human rights groups and Uighur advocates believe Obama may be forced to allow them to settle in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, where there is a large community of Uighur expatriates. The administration has already shown leniency toward the Uighurs: Days after Obama’s inauguration, Parhat was allowed to call his mother for the first time in nearly seven years.

Although Obama has given his administration a year to decide how to deal with the Guantanamo detainees, the Uighur question is likely to become an issue much sooner.

Human rights groups and lawyers for the 17 men have begun to push for their immediate release, noting that the only thing that prevents their freedom is a Bush administration decision to challenge last year’s court ruling that they be freed immediately.

Nearly three years ago, the U.S. released five Uighurs from Guantanamo, sending them to Albania, the only country that would take them at the time.


The Balkan country proved a poor match for the refugees, and Albania was spurned by China for accepting them, which led it to refuse to take any other Uighur detainees.

“The Albanians took a big diplomatic and economic hit,” said a Pentagon official involved in detainee issues. “No one wants to do that again.”

According to unclassified documents and transcripts of U.S. military tribunals released by the Pentagon, the men range in age from late 20s to mid-40s. Nearly all said they fled China to escape poverty and oppression, ending up in Afghanistan because it was one of the few nearby countries that wouldn’t send them back to China.

Parhat is typical. In his testimony before a Guantanamo tribunal, he said he left Xinjiang in May 2001 because he was barely making a living selling fruit and had heard rumors of a camp in Afghanistan where Uighurs trained to fight the Chinese.

He found his way to the camp in Tora Bora, run by Hasan Mahsum, a well-known separatist leader believed to have founded the radical East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

At the camp, the Uighurs read the Koran and trained to use Kalashnikov rifles, the men told their tribunals.


“The reason I trained on those weapons was so I could get my freedom. I understand that my country is a brutal communist country,” testified another of the Uighur detainees, 30-year-old Ahmen Mohamed.

But they insisted that the camp was funded by wealthy Uighurs living abroad, not by Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and that they considered the United States to be their ally because of its history of staunch anti-communism.

“I can represent the 25 million Uighur people by saying that we will not do anything against the United States,” Parhat said.

In his federal case four years later, a three-judge federal appellate court agreed, ruling in June that there was no evidence that any of the Uighurs had plotted against the U.S.

Alim Seytoff, director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, said the nationalist sentiments expressed by the Uighur detainees were much the same as those expressed by Tibetans, but are viewed differently internationally simply because the Uighurs are Muslim.

“Not a single Tibetan was sentenced to death,” Seytoff said of last year’s uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, arguing that Western pressure has restrained Chinese authorities. “With the Uighurs, they can get away with it.”


The last year has been particularly difficult for Uighurs in China, human rights groups say. Before the Summer Olympics in Beijing, Chinese authorities accused Uighur separatists of planning terrorist attacks to disrupt the Games, and they began a crackdown. At least 30 people were killed in bombings and shooting incidents in western China before the Olympics.

But Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert in Singapore, believes that Uighur separatists pose more of a threat than U.S. authorities realize.

“It is true that they came to Afghanistan primarily to fight China, but they have been radicalized by their exposure to international terror groups,” Gunaratna said. “The global jihadists very much have China in their sights.

“They feel that they’ve defeated the Soviet Union, they are defeating the United States, and next they will go after the dragon: China.”




About the Uighurs

Goal: The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people, many of whom chafe under Chinese rule and some of whom advocate independence.


Obstacle: For years, the Beijing government has tried to crush separatist sentiment in the far western province of Xinjiang, a vast, sparsely populated region rich in natural resources and closer in culture and heritage to Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan.

Conflict: Xinjiang has seen sporadic violence that peaked in the 1990s as Muslims protested Chinese crackdowns. Before the Summer Olympics in Beijing last year, Chinese authorities blamed Uighur separatists for attacks in the region, including one in which 16 border police officers were killed.

Source: Times Staff Reports