East Turkestan: Uyghurs in Guantanamo Fear Transfer to China
The prisoner from a western region of China faced serious accusations as he appeared before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. But he had a much more pressing issue on his mind: Where he might go if he were released.
If he were sent back to China, he might be executed, the man, identified only as Mahmut, told the panel at the start of his hearing, according to a transcripts released by the Pentagon.
"I do not want repatriation and am seeking political asylum," he said.
His fear, according to a review of dozens of other transcripts from hearings at the prison in eastern Cuba, was not uncommon among the detainees.
Prisoners from Uzbekistan, Yemen, Algeria, and other nations told tribunals that they or their families could be tortured or killed if they are sent home.
Some detainees worry about reprisals from militants who will suspect them of cooperating with U.S. authorities in its war on terror. Others say their own governments may target them for reasons that have nothing to do with why they were taken to Guantanamo Bay in the first place.
The U.S. has released or transferred 267 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and has announced plans to do the same with at least 123 more in the future.
It is impossible to know how many of the detainees, most held for years now without being charged, fear going home. The U.S. military does not comment on individual cases, and the detainees generally are not in a position to offer any evidence of persecution as they plead their cases before the tribunals.
The personal threats detainees may face after leaving Guantanamo Bay pose a human rights challenge to the United States, which has stopped bringing new prisoners to the camp and is under international pressure to close it altogether.
President Bush has said that the U.S. transfers detainees to other countries only when it receives assurances that they won't be tortured.
Critics say such assurances are useless.
"This policy of handing over prisoners to countries that the U.S. challenges on their human rights abuses is a sham and it opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy around the world," said Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has sought passage of a law that would ban the U.S. from sending prisoners to other countries to face torture.
In the case of one group of prisoners, Muslims from western
China known as Uighurs, the U.S. has struggled to find a solution.
A military tribunal has determined that five are "no longer enemy combatants" and can be released from Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. agrees they could face persecution back in China, but so far has not found a third country to take them.
For now, the Uighurs are being kept at Camp Iguana -- a privileged section of the prison where inmates have unlimited recreation time, televisions, stereos and a view of the Caribbean.
A Uighur told a military tribunal that he feared going back to China so much, he considered trying to convince the panel he was guilty, according to a hearing transcript.
"If I am sent back to China, they will torture me really bad," said the man, whose name didn't appear in the transcript. "They will use dogs. They will pull out my nails."
The Uighur identified as Mahmut was accused of being a member
of al Qaeda, which he denied, and of training with a Muslim militant group --
an organization he insisted was dedicated only to establishing an independent
homeland in Chinese Turkistan.
"I want to go somewhere where I can live a free life," he said. "That's why I left my country."
Two of the Uighurs are appealing a federal judge's rejection of their request to be released in the United States, where a family in the Washington suburbs has offered to take them in.
"Home is China and in China you disappear into a dungeon and no one ever hears from you again," said their lawyer, Sabin Willett. "These guys are not a risk to anyone. They should be released here."