On Tuesday November 20, Adel Abdul Hakim, a former Guantánamo detainee from Xinjiang province in the People's Republic of China, took another step towards reconstructing his shattered life by applying for asylum in Sweden.
The 33-year old, an ethnic Uyghur from a state where the repression of his people is widespread, made his claim for permanent resident status during a visit from Tirana, the capital of Albania, where he had been living, in a UN refugee camp, since his release from Guantánamo with four other Uyghurs in May 2006. After negotiations conducted by his US lawyers, various NGOs and lawyers in Sweden, he had been granted a four-day visa, to attend a human rights conference, and, finally, to be reunited with his sister and her family, who are part of a large Uyghur community in Sweden, one of the leading countries in the world in fulfilling international obligations to accept refugees.
The five men -- and 13 of the other 17 Uyghurs, who are all still in Guantánamo, despite having been cleared for release -- had fled the well-chronicled oppression in their homeland, and were living in a ruined village in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains, when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001. Although they indulged in nothing more sinister than renovating the settlement's ruined buildings, and occasionally firing a bullet from their only weapon, an aging AK-47, while dreaming of rising up against their oppressors, they were targeted in a U.S. bombing raid -- in which several of their companions died -- and were then captured by enterprising Pakistani villagers after making their way to the Pakistani border.
They were subsequently sold to the Americans, who soon realized that they were not involved with al-Qaeda, but who decided to hold them for their supposed intelligence value. In The Interrogator's War, a book written by a former military interrogator at the U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, the author, writing under the pseudonym of Chris Mackey, explained that the arrival of the Uyghurs triggered a frenzy of activity in the upper echelons of the administration. "[T]he requests for follow-up questions flooded in from Washington," Mackey wrote, "and every query that came in made it clear that U.S. intelligence was starting from practically zero with this group."
After their transfer to Guantánamo, the U.S. authorities obligingly allowed Chinese intelligence operatives to visit the prison to question the men, which was, understandably, an experience that some of them found disturbing. Dawut Abdurehim, one of those still held at Guantánamo, said after the visit that he was vaguely threatened, but reported that "some other Uyghurs had conversations with bad, dirty language," in which they were told by the Chinese delegation that, "when we go back to the country, we'd be killed or sentenced to prison for a long time." It later became clear that the U.S. administration's cooperation with the Chinese authorities, which included branding the Uyghur separatist movement (the East Turkistan Islamic Movement) as a terrorist organization, was intimately tied to securing China's support -- or lack of opposition -- to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Despite this arrangement, it was the very real threat that the men would be tortured or even killed if they were returned to China that led to the U.S. administration seeking out a third country that would accept the men after they had been cleared of all wrong-doing in the tribunals at Guantánamo -- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals -- which were established to determine whether, on capture, they had been correctly designated as "enemy combatants." Despite the U.S. administration's best efforts at cajoling or bribing other countries to accept the men, however, Albania -- a Muslim country, but one of the poorest states in Europe -- was the only country that could be prevailed upon to accept them.
Although Adel and his companions found their new life in Albania frustrating, as there are no other Uyghur speakers and there was also no prospect of work, they were fortunate to have been cleared and released. Their 13 companions not only remain in Guantánamo, but some were also subjected to multiple tribunals, as the administration revealed another facet of Guantánamo's prevailing injustice by reconvening tribunals when they produced what was regarded as the wrong result.
For Adel, at least, the opportunity to rebuild his life in earnest is now a possibility, It is, for the moment, the one bright light in the stories not only of the Uyghurs, but of all the other dispossessed men, captured and imprisoned through chronic failures of intelligence, many of whom are, sadly, still languishing in Guantánamo. It remains to be seen whether this development will open a new avenue for the release of some of the other innocent men (as many as 70, according to some estimates), who are also fearful of returning to their home countries, and whose continued presence in Guantánamo provides a major obstacle to the administration's stated plans to wind down much of the prison's operation.
[Note: I am immensely grateful to Sabin Willett, one of Adel's lawyers, for informing me about Adel's visit to Sweden. For more on the Uyghurs, see my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.]