East Turkestan: Account of Lawyer Who Sided With Guantanamo Uyghurs
The US won't release the Chinese Muslims being held illegally
at Guantanamo Bay and Sabin Willett can't let them go either.
He found his way to the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which steered him to the Uighur cases.
Like most Americans, Willett had never heard the word “Uighur”
until he agreed to represent two of them. But he has quickly become an expert
on the Chinese Muslims who ''live in the part of the world that's always in
the crease of the atlas when you open it up," as he puts it. He spent a
recent week bunking in the Combined Bachelors' Quarters, visiting his clients
on the base at the southern tip of Cuba. It was his fourth trip; during his
first, in July, he found them in leg shackles chained to a bolt in the floor.
The Uyghurs have been oppressed by the Chinese government for decades. At least 15 of them are being held at Guantanamo.
hey were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time -- Afghanistan and Pakistan in the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, when American troops rounded up suspected terrorists and shipped them to the naval station. Willett's clients, he says, were waiting for visas en route to jobs in Turkey when the bombs began to fall.
The Uyghurs are now in their fifth year of confinement, even though the US military has concluded that they are not ''enemy combatants." In fact, a federal court in December found their imprisonment illegal. But US District Judge James Robertson in Washington, D.C., also said that he had no authority to release them, as they have nowhere to go.
''This indefinite imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay is unlawful," Robertson wrote. But he added: ''The question in this case is whether the law gives me the power to do what I believe justice requires. The answer, I believe, is no." The judge said he could not order the men released into the United States because that would interfere with the immigration powers of the executive branch of government.
This leaves them in geographical and legal limbo. They'd be persecuted if sent back to China, the Bush administration has refused to grant them asylum, and several countries have declined to accept them. Willett had asked for his clients to be sent to a small Uyghur community outside of Washington, D.C., to no avail.
''It's heartbreaking from a legal perspective," says Willett, 48, who is appealing the decision. ''It's a bizarre conclusion, to have a judge say the executive branch is acting illegally, but he can't do anything about it."
The sheer logistics of the case are frustrating, too. It took months for Willett to gain FBI clearance. Although his law firm is representing 12 Uyghurs, attorneys have been allowed to see only two of them, because of red tape. Willett says the government keeps finding ways to delay, and a court has yet to rule on motions made by his law firm that would clarify the process of legal representation. On Guantanamo, it took nine months to get a ruling from a judge.