Jan 12, 2007

East Turkestan: Guantanamo Uyghurs' Strange Odyssey

Fearing persecution in China, 3 Uyghurs recently released from Guantanamo Bay resettle in Albania in the hope of finding peace.

Below is an article written by Neil Arun and published by BBC News;

Sipping orange juice before their midday prayers sit three men once treated as terrorists by two of the world's most powerful nations.

Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim were despatched to Guantanamo Bay at the dawn of the "war on terror".

The US military eventually ruled that they did not pose a threat and set them free last summer.

In their native China, however, they remain wanted men, regarded as militant Muslim separatists sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

Fearing they would face torture or death if handed over to Beijing, the US arranged asylum for five of its former captives in Albania, Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim and two other Uyghurs. (A further 13 of their compatriots remain in Guantanamo.)

How the Uyghurs' transfer reveals a new trend in the "war on terror"

From the safety of a cafe in the Albanian capital, Tirana, Abu Bakr says China persecutes his ethnic kin, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs who practise Islam and have long sought a separate state.

"We are being killed because we want the right to pray together - because we want to keep our beards and traditional dress," he says.

China accuses the Uyghurs of fomenting unrest in the western province of Xinjiang. Rights groups say thousands have been killed or imprisoned in China's crackdown on the Uyghurs' separatist aspirations.

Despite four years' wrongful imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Bakr reserves most of his rage for Beijing.

"The US committed a great injustice by imprisoning us men," he says, referring to the 18 Uyghurs initially jailed at Guantanamo.

"But you cannot compare America's behaviour with China's," he says.

Escape from Afghanistan

Abu Bakr and at least two of the five Uyghur men freed from Guantanamo were once traders, taking cheap Chinese leather goods to the markets of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

They say Chinese police tried to discourage their foreign visits by intimidating them and extracting bribes.

Abu Bakr began to plan a foreign trip overland towards Turkey and Europe.

He joined a larger group of would-be migrants and they set off through the neighbouring post-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, winding up in the winter of 2001 in the Afghan city of Jalalabad.

Within days of their arrival, Jalalabad was under attack. US fighter pilots had the Taleban stronghold in their sights as they bombed the hardline Islamist government out of office.

The men left for Pakistan and in the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border, they were picked up by a nomadic tribe that gave them food and shelter.

But word had spread that the Americans were offering large sums of money for al-Qaeda suspects. The tribesmen tipped off the authorities and traded their Uyghur guests for the bounty.

The men were taken back to Afghanistan to a newly built US detention centre in the city of Kandahar. They say they were interrogated for several months and denied decent food and baths.

Then they were flown to Guantanamo Bay.

Terror prison

The group of 18 Uyghurs stuck together at the Cuban prison camp teeming with terror suspects from around the world.

"We exchanged religious greetings with some of the Arabs," Abu Bakr says. "But there was no way of forming any friendships."

As for the guards, he says, "most of them behaved like robots".

"There were some good ones who showed us kindness and there were others who went out of their way to offend us - throwing around our copies of the Koran, making farting noises while we prayed."

US defence officials, in response to similar allegations of abuse at Guantanamo, have said every effort is made to respect detainees' rights and to investigate - and punish - apparent violations.

"Guantanamo was a five-year nightmare," Abu Bakr says. "We're trying to forget it."

But the men say they are still haunted by the memory of the 13 fellow Uyghurs arrested with them who remain in the prison camp.

"We appeal to the US to release all of them," Abu Bakr says. "We are peaceful people - not terrorists."

According to Jason Pinney, a lawyer who campaigned for the men, the cases of the 13 Uyghurs still in detention "are factually indistinct from the released men".

"We believe this demonstrates the arbitrariness of detention at Guantanamo," he says.

Nuri Turkel, a former president of the Uyghur-American Association, says the Uyghurs at Guantanamo Bay instinctively viewed the US as an ally until their arrest.

"The irony is that in many cases the US has actively supported the Uyghur cause," he says.

New life

The men were initially unsettled by the prospect of settling in Albania.

"We were scared because we thought Albania would be like China - we heard it had gone through 50 years of communism," Abu Bakr says.

But they say they were pleasantly surprised. "We've received a lot of help here," Adil says. "Albanian people are very welcoming and there are many Muslim brothers here."

"Albania is a poor country," Abu Bakr says. "But it showed itself to be strong in standing up to the Chinese."

The men plan to learn the Albanian language and eventually find work here. Locals talk of hiring them in the security industry. Others say they could cash in on their "celebrity" by establishing Albania's first Uyghur restaurant.

The hardship of making a new life in an alien country has been eased by the friendship between the five men - a bond forged in Guantanamo Bay.

When they arrived in Albania, the men say they were sent for blood tests and discovered to their amazement that they shared the same blood group.

"We always knew we were brothers in Islam," Abu Bakr laughs. "Now we know we are true brothers - blood brothers!"