The Witness to Guantanamo Project (W2G) just returned from filming interviews with the Uyghurs in Palau. The project has been conducting in-depth (2 ½ hour) videos of former Guantanamo detainees around the world, with the intent of documenting the systematic human rights abuses and rule of law violations committed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Their stories will be archived so that future generations will know what happened in the years following 9/11/2001. An earlier posting on our project appears here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-jan-honigsberg/the-witness-to-guantanamo_b_278893.html
The Uyghurs are a unique subset of the detainees at Guantanamo. Their goals were not to take up arms against the United States, whom they consider a good friend, but to protect themselves against Chinese aggression in their homeland of East Turkistan. Consequently, they were declared non-enemy combatants early in the vetting process. But, over time, the Uyghurs have become pawns in the global game between China and the U.S.
The U.S. cannot repatriate the men from Guantanamo to their home in East Turkistan because the Chinese, who depict the men as terrorists, will likely torture and kill them. China has also put immense pressure on other nations not to accept the men as refugees. When Albania agreed to take 5 Uyghurs in 2006, China pressured Albania not to allow any more into the country. Since then, only the islands of Bermuda and Palau have agreed to accept the Uyghurs. Bermuda took 4, Palau took 6. Seven Uyghurs remain in Guantanamo, despite their innocence.
The U.S. has not applied the enormous power it has as a superpower to pressure nations with Uyghur communities to accept these men. It seems that the U.S. does not want to risk provoking China by finding culturally and socially appropriate homes for the men. Members of the larger Uyghur community believe that a portion of the price that the U.S. paid in obtaining China's support for our war in Iraq was not to give comfort and assistance to the Uyghurs.
The U.S. will not allow the men to settle in America, although there is a strong Uyghur community in Washington D.C. President Obama had an opportunity to relocate the men to D.C. early in his administration, but his advisors took too long in making the arrangements. In the interim, Congress passed a law barring all detainees from settling in the U.S.
In October 2008, a federal judge ordered that the Uyghurs be released into the U.S. However, the administration challenged the order and the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the challenge, ruling that only Congress and the president can decide who is permitted to enter the U.S. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in this case, Kiyemba v. Obama, in March of this year. A decision is due in June.
It appears that once these men have been released from Guantanamo, President Obama does not care to spend political capital in helping them find homes in Uyghur communities, or even in assisting them in obtaining employment. (The men in Bermuda have found employment, but the men in Albania and Palau have not.) Clearing out Guantanamo is Obama's objective; it is not ensuring that these innocent men can truly move on with their lives once released.
When we spoke to the Uyghurs in Palau last week, they told us that they see Palau as a transition point. They are not citizens of Palau, and have not been issued passports. They are hoping to move to a nation where there is a Uyghur community. There is none in Palau. In fact there are only 400 Muslims in the entire nation of 21,000 people. In addition, they note that for the past eight-plus years they have lived on tropical islands (Cuba and Palau), in stark contrast to their lives as children and young men in East Turkistan -- a landlocked nation, surrounded by more than a half-dozen countries.
We met with the President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, who described the Uyghurs' narrative as "biblical." The men are stateless, having no home and no opportunity to return home. Many are married, but will never reunite with or see their wives or families again. Their wives cannot leave China without serious repercussions to the members of the families who remain. And because the Uyghurs do not have passports, they cannot travel to other countries.
Rushan Abbas, a translator for the Uyghurs who lived in Guantanamo for 11 months in 2002 while working for the U.S. military, said that the U.S. is focusing too much on the Arab world, and should look over its shoulder at China -- our real long-term threat.
Apparently, even if the U.S. government knows this, it is too afraid to push back on China. And, consequently, the stateless Uyghurs continue to be pawns in the global game of the superpowers.
Peter Jan Honigsberg is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the Director of the Witness to Guantanamo Project. His book, Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror is published by the University of California Press.