The strangest cases to come out of Guantanamo have been those against a group of Chinese Muslims who were picked up in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. These men were training or living in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and were sent to Guantanamo after being turned over to U.S. authorities apparently by bounty hunters.
Some of the Chinese Muslims -- known as Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) -- believed in establishing a breakaway state from China that they called East Turkestan. Others said they were in Afghanistan because they just wanted to live some place where they weren't persecuted for their faiths. None of them, several federal courts have ruled, were threats to the United States.
From my travels in Central Asia and elsewhere, no group that I've ever come across has struck me as more pro-American than the Uighurs. So one has to wonder who made the decision to send them to Guantanamo in the first place.
But today a federal judge ordered 17 of them released from Guantanamo into the United States. The judge agreed with the detainees' attorneys that the Constitution bars holding the men indefinitely without cause.
It was the first time, the Post reported, that a U.S. court has ordered the release of a Guantanamo detainee, and the first time that a foreign national held there has been ordered brought to the United States. The Bush administration will fight this decision and an appeal is planned.
The Uighurs saga is the stuff of, well, Greek tragedy.
First, who are they? The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group of some 8-9 million that inhabits the northwest corner of China, an autonomous zone called Xinjiang. Xinjiang means "new frontier" in Chinese and got its name during the Qing Dynasty when China's empire expanded into those zones. They speak Uighur -- a language related to Turkish.
From the middle 19th century until after World War II, Russia, later the Soviet Union, China and various warlords vied for influence over the region. Several independent states -- one called East Turkestan -- were established there. Soviet influence was high for a while. Then in 1949 China's People's Liberation Army entered Xinjiang, placed it under military control of Marshal Wang Zhen and the region grew in infamy as China's Siberia -- a place of labor camps and nuclear testing grounds. China tested its first nuclear device in Xinjiang's Lop Nur in 1964. China's biggest oil fields were discovered in Xinjiang as early as the mid-1920s.
Relations between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese have never been close. With their opposition to religion and traditional cultures, the Communists were no exception. After 1978 when China began opening up to the outside world, Uighur separatist groups started agitating for independence, sometimes violently. Unlike the Tibetans with the Dalai Lama, independence-minded Uighurs never had a single locus of authority. So their struggle was often scattershot and regularly violent, involving attacks on Chinese police stations and bombings of buses and other acts.
The United States traditionally took a dim view of Chinese claims that Uighurs were "terrorists." Instead, US officials maintained that China should allow all its citizens the freedom to associate and lobby peacefully for change. After 9/11, however, US policy on the Xinjiang issue shifted. For the first time the United States labeled a Uighur group as "terrorist." On Sept. 12, 2002, the United Nations accepted a joint recommendation by the governments of the United States, China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan that the Chinese-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) be declared a terrorist organisation. The US was pushing for war against Iraq at the time and needed to make sure that China did not block UN Security Council resolutions against Saddam. As such, Washington's support for the terrorism label was most probably an American pay-off for Beijing's acquiesecence to the US invasion.
After 9/11, bounty hunters apparently picked up more than 20 Uighurs in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border. Somehow they were shipped to Guantanamo. The US government asserted that the Uighurs were members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and trained at camps affiliated with the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
In one of the most bizarre chapters of the Guatanamo episode, the US released five of the Uighurs several years ago to (of all places) Albania where they were resettled. They can't work; they can't visit their families; their wives and kids can't get passports to leave China. They live on a couple of hundreds Euros a month. At least the US, in its wisdom, didn't send them back to China because of worries that they would be jailed and tortured. (China is in the midst of a serious crackdown against Uighur separatism. China has accused Uighur groups of a series of recent attacks on police and other security forces. However, Western reports, have called into question the veracity of China's official claims.)
So U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled today that the Uighurs still in Guantanamo can now enter the United States. If the ruling stands, it will be quite a victory for this group of Uighurs. But I wouldn't be surprised if China exacts revenge on their compatriots back in Xinjiang.