The unluckiest of the unlucky

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am

Abu Bakkar Qassim and his friends are given bottled water to drink at Camp Iguana, but the brand name could not be more inappropriate, given the circumstances. It is called Freedom Springs.

Hemmed in by military guards and razor-wire fences, freedom is frustratingly elusive for Qassim and the four other Uygur men detained with him. Ironically, it was a quest for liberty and independence that caused them to flee their Chinese homeland in the first place, but after more than four years on US territory they still have neither.

'We heard a lot of good things about the US in the past, about democracy and human rights. Now they treat us differently and I don't understand that,' Qassim told his US military interrogators, according to newly released Pentagon transcripts.

Captured by bounty hunters in Pakistan in 2001 and sold to US forces as alleged associates of al-Qaeda or the Taleban, they ended up at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, on the southern tip of Cuba, with more than 500 other alleged 'enemy combatants'.

They were held in a facility described by Amnesty International as 'the gulag of our times', denied the protections of the Geneva Convention and held without formal charge or trial. Government officials branded them 'bad guys'; US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld described them as 'the worst of the worst'.

Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall University Law School, New Jersey, who has studied their plight, has a different description: 'The unluckiest of the unlucky.'

Despite the Bush administration's subsequent admission in 2004 that it got it wrong and that the men are no threat to national security, the Uygurs remain trapped at Guantanamo with nowhere to go.

Washington has acknowledged that China cannot be trusted to handle them humanely if they return there. 'The US has made it clear that it does not expel, return or extradite individuals to other countries where it believes that it is 'more likely than not' that they will be tortured or subject to persecution,' says the Pentagon.

But it has refused to transfer them to the US mainland, where they could apply for asylum, and blames the delay in releasing them on other countries' failure to give them status instead.

'The Uygurs really are in the ultimate Catch-22,' said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director with Amnesty USA.

'The US went on a rant about them being the 'worst of the worst ... the most vicious on the face of the earth' then they say to other countries 'Oh whoops, they're not bad after all - so here, you take them.' But is it really other countries' responsibility to clear up America's mess?'

For Qassim, the saga began early in 2000, when he left his home in Xinjiang province to sell leather goods at a market in Kyrgyzstan and learn the Koran. 'If people try to teach the Koran [in China], they are executed by the Chinese government,' he told his interrogators.

Still struggling to make ends meet after 18 months there, he heard about a Uygur-run leather factory in Turkey and, keen for more lucrative work, decided to head there. He went first to Pakistan to apply for a Turkish visa, but could not afford to stay while the paperwork was processed.

So he journeyed to Afghanistan where he had been told there was a Uygur-run 'training camp' where he would get free bed and board and lessons on the Koran. In a development that proved key to his downfall, the camp also provided weapons training, with the Uygurs' separatist struggle in mind.

'I never trained at the camp to fight the US or coalition ... we Uygurs have more than 1 billion enemies, that is enough for us,' said Qassim. 'I trained against the Chinese government. I want to be free because 100,000 people are being used like slaves ... in prison in my country.'

He added: 'Is it a crime to want to save people from torture? Over the last 50 years, we've been suffering at Chinese hands like animals.'

Adel Abdu Hakim, another of the Uygurs, said: 'We didn't want to go right back to China after training to fight them. I was trying to go to Turkey to do my business. If something were to happen, then I would go back with other young Uygur men to fight the Chinese government ... but I'm hoping that my country will be liberated peacefully. That would be great.'

When the US bombed Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Qassim, Hakim and 16 other Uygurs fled through snow and fog to the border region with Pakistan. They were given sanctuary by local tribespeople, but not for long.

'Get wealth and power beyond your dreams. You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taleban force catch al-Qaeda and Taleban murderers,' read the leaflets that rained on the region from US aircraft, printed to look like bank notes worth around US$4,200. 'This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life, pay for livestock and doctors and schoolbooks and housing for all your people,' the flyers urged.

The Uygurs were turned over to US forces in exchange for wads of cash and arrived at Guantanamo in January 2002, where they have remained ever since.

In a study of US Department of Defence records relating to 517 detainees there, Professor Denbeaux has established that just 5 per cent were actually captured by US forces. Only 8 per cent have been characterised in the US records as al-Qaeda fighters. Fifty-five per cent are deemed not to have committed any hostile act against the US or its allies.

Some were seized on the basis that they owned a Kalashnikov - as most people in Afghanistan did at the time, Professor Denbeaux's report found - or because they stayed at guesthouses, sported Casio watches or wore drab olive clothing - deemed by the US to be potential hallmarks of Taleban or al-Qaeda affiliation.

When Sabin Willett, a Boston-based lawyer who is acting pro bono for Qassim and Hakim, first met his clients at Guantanamo, they were in chains held down by a heavy iron bolt on the floor. Now they are at Camp Iguana, a separate part of the Guantanamo complex, where they live together in a wooden hut.

The Department of Defence says they are free to roam the area and have access to an 'exercise/recreation yard, their own bunk house, activity room .... television set with VCR and DVD capability, a stereo system, recreational items [such as soccer, volleyball, table tennis], unlimited access to a shower facility, air-conditioning ... special food items and library materials.'

Disturbingly, said Mr Willett, the US allowed a delegation from the Chinese government access to interrogate the men in late 2002 or early 2003. 'They called us bastards and all this stuff,' the transcripts quote an unidentified Uygur as saying.

Mr Willett said: 'I think there was a period when the US needed Chinese support for the Iraq adventure and this was part of the deal. Isn't it interesting? The military won't permit media to go and talk to our guys but they allow representatives of the PRC [People's Republic of China] to come in and yell at them.'

The US will not explain why it is unwilling to give the men asylum, though reports have suggested that it does not wish to provoke Beijing and the fact that the men admitted they took weapons training does not sit comfortably with Washington's anti-terrorist agenda.

'Every once in a while someone pops up and gets some press for saying, 'Oh, let's close Guantanamo Bay.' Well, if someone has a better idea, I'd like to hear it,' Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last month.

'We've released people from Guantanamo on a continuing basis, and we've made mistakes. Fifteen of them have gone back to the battlefield and tried to kill Americans. The idea that you could just open the gates and say, 'Gee, fellows, you're all just wonderful' is not realistic.'

Nury Turkel, president of the Uygur Association of America, said: 'It's very frustrating, it's very confusing. We are still hoping that some country will open up their doors to provide humanitarian assistance, but we know there's not much progress being made.

'I hate to use this term, but they will be turned into organ donors if they are sent home, that's how bad the situation is. Their fate will be unspeakable.'