Four and a half months ago, 17 unjustly detained prisoners in Guantánamo wrote a letter to President Obama asking for their release. In the secretive world of Guantánamo, however, nothing is straightforward, and it has taken over four months for the letter to be cleared by the government's censors and sent on to the White House.
The men who wrote the letter are Uighurs, Muslims from China's Xinjiang province, who had fled their homeland because of Chinese persecution, and were sold to U.S. forces by opportunistic Pakistani villagers during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The majority of these men were cleared for release from Guantánamo by military review boards between 2004 and 2006, although they remained at Guantánamo because it was unsafe to return them to China, and because no third country could be found that would accept them (after Albania risked the wrath of China by accepting five other Uighur prisoners in May 2006).
After the Supreme Court granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights to the Guantánamo prisoners in June 2008, one of these men won a stunning court victory, and in the months that followed the government gave up all pretense that any of the men were "enemy combatants," who could continue to be held without charge or trial.
In October, when their habeas corpus case was heard in a District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Ricardo Urbina had no hesitation in declaring that their continued detention was unconstitutional, and, because no other country had been found that would accept them, ordered their release into the care of communities in the United States, who had prepared detailed plans for their resettlement.
Even then, their long and unjust imprisonment did not come to an end. The notoriously Conservative Court of Appeals -- supported by President Obama's Justice Department -- overturned Judge Urbina's ruling in February, gutting the lower courts' ability to order the release of prisoners after successful habeas appeals, in spite of the clear intent of the Supreme Court's ruling, and handing the effective power over the prisoners' fates back to the Executive, which, as a result, now has the same arbitrary power over the release of prisoners that was wielded by the Bush administration.
Shortly after this ruling was delivered by the Court of Appeals, ten of the Uighurs wrote a letter to Barack Obama asking for their release. However, in Guantánamo, every word written or uttered by the prisoners (and their lawyers) is presumptively classified until it is cleared by a Pentagon review team, and it took over four months for the review team to clear the Uighurs' letter for release, even though, in the end, not a single redaction was made, and even though the men's lawyers had made repeated pleas for the Justice Department to expedite its clearance.
Since the letter was written, two of the signatories -- Huzaifa (Parhat) and Abdulnassir (known to the Pentagon as Abdul Helil Mamut) -- have been released from Guantánamo to begin a new life in Bermuda with two other Uighur ex-prisoners, but the other signatories remain, and I reproduce their letter below for two reasons: firstly, because it is such a clear appeal for justice from wrongly imprisoned men whose experience of the U.S. government remains profoundly disappointing, despite the change of leadership; and secondly, to highlight the absurd and arbitrary system whereby the government's censors can hold onto a two-page letter for over four months without being required to provide any explanation.
A letter to President Obama from the Guantánamo Uighurs, March 8, 2009
Mr. President Obama, the President of the United States of America,
We are the unfortunate people from a country called "East Turkistan," which was occupied by China forcefully 60 years ago. The region is now called "Xinjiang" by the Chinese authorities. Seven years ago we have left (our homeland) due to the suppression by the Chinese government and went to Central Asia and later went to Afghanistan through Pakistan. The Pakistani government sold us to the U.S. and later we were brought to Guantánamo Bay and left here. After 6 years of investigations, the U.S. military confirmed that we are innocent.
We are innocent civilians; however, we are currently still being held in jail. Although we are innocent people, the food we are consuming is the food prepared for prisoners. The clothes we are wearing is prisoners' clothes. We are surrounded with barbed wire. We can only see the sky and a view of a littler bit of the ocean from the small opening in the fences (because the barbed wire fences are covered with material so we won't see the outside).
The military guards who are jealous of the little comfort items we have and the food we receive always try to tell the chain of command and the government rumors about us for the purpose of getting us into trouble. Conversely, in the outside world they are saying, "The Uighurs are innocent and they are receiving special treatment. They will be released soon."
Although we, the Uighurs, were arrested during the Bush era "wrongfully," we were later blamed as "enemy combatants" and went through tremendous hardships during these 7 years. Our attorneys have told us repeatedly in the past that President Bush is not doing the right thing by keeping us here and if Obama becomes the president, he will be different and everything is going to be much better, and we also believed in that. But it has been several months since you became the president and we are still in jail here. The dark days are still lasting for us. The word "freedom" is eventually disappearing from our heads.
We have heard many times that European countries are saying if the U.S. officially asks them to accept us then they would. But the U.S. is not taking that step and we are still left in prison here. We do not believe that there is no country out there that would give us political asylum. We do not believe that the U.S. government cannot find a solution for the Uighur issue here. The U.S. government is not willing to release us to the outside world. Why is it?
We need freedom. We need a country who can guarantee our safety. How long can a man's life last? Seven years of the beautiful times of our lives have been spent in prison cell blocks, wire and cement cages.
Mr. President Obama, please try to solve our issue in imperative scale, and bring justice to the innocents. Please do not carry on the injustice and wrong President Bush implemented.
Ahmad Tourson (ISN 201)
Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman (ISN 281)
Abdul Razak (ISN 219)
Khalid (ISN 280)
Abdusabur (ISN 275)
Huzaifa (ISN 320)
Abdulnassir (ISN 278)
[Three other names were withheld at the request of their attorneys]
March 8, 2009
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.