On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder gave the first public indication that at least some of the Chinese Uighurs cleared for release from Guantanamo in September 2008, but unable to return home to China for fear of persecution, will be allowed to settle in the United States. His announcement followed the visit of the European Union’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove to US.
De Kerchove is believed to have delivered the blunt message to the Obama administration that, unless the US demonstrated its good faith by resettling the Uighurs on American soil, it was highly unlikely that any European country would be prepared to help in the dismantlement of the Guantanamo prison camp by accepting other discharged detainees.
The Uighurs were among 22 Chinese citizens of Uighur descent who were captured near Tora Bora towards the end of 2001. The circumstances of their capture is unclear although former detainee Abu Bakr Qasim has claimed they were handed over to US forces for a $5,000 a head bounty.
The men are alleged to be militant separatists affiliated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who had received weapons training at a camp in Afghanistan with the apparent objective of fighting against China for Uighur independence.
None took part in hostilities against the United States nor bore any apparent animosity towards the west. Indeed, Abu Bakr Qasim told reporters that he had expected the US to be sympathetic to his people’s cause.
In May 2006 five of the original group were released from Guantanamo and resettled in Albania although one, Adel Abdu Al-Hakim, has subsequently been allowed to relocate to Sweden.
The US government finally conceded in September 2008 that none of the remaining Uighurs in Guantanamo could be categorized as an 'enemy combatant' and in October the US District Court ordered the Uighurs released. They have been trapped in limbo ever since with no country prepared to offer them a home for fear of angering China.
The saga of the Uighars has only served to underline the comments made this week by Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a guest post on The Washington Note. Wilkerson lambasted the 'utter incompetence' of the battlefield intelligence screening process that saw so many individuals who posed no threat to US interests transferred to Guantanamo and proclaimed to the American public as 'the worst of the worst'.
In Wilkinson’s words:
Several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released... But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror.
Hundreds of detainees have been held in Guantanamo for an unconscionable length of time in defiance of international law and notions of due process. Wilkinson estimates that only two dozen or so could actually be considered terrorists. The rest have suffered long enough. The Obama administration must set an example and put right a wrong that has cast a long shadow over America’s global reputation. It can start by offering the Uighurs of Guantanamo a new home on American soil.
By Tom Parker, Policy Director for Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA.