The stories of the Uighurs in Guantánamo
– Muslims from the oppressed Xinjiang province of China, formerly known as East
Turkistan – have long demonstrated chronic injustice on the part of the U.S.
authorities to those who know of them, although they have only sporadically
registered on the media's radar.
Numbering 22 men in total, three were picked up randomly in Afghanistan, another
was caught crossing the Pakistani border disguised in a burqa, while the other
18 were seized together by opportunistic Pakistani villagers after fleeing Afghanistan
in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001, and sold to U.S. forces
for a bounty, as was common at the time. A leaflet dropped by U.S. planes offered
enterprising villagers and soldiers "millions of dollars for helping the
anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers."
These 18 men, who had fled their homeland because of persecution, in search
of a new life, or in the hope of gaining some sort of training to enable them
to fight back against their oppressors, had been living together in a small,
run-down hamlet in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains, mending the settlement's
ruined buildings, and occasionally training on their only weapon, an aging AK-47.
After the U.S.-led invasion, they were targeted in a U.S. bombing raid, in
which several men died. The survivors then made their way across the mountains
to the Pakistani border, where they were first welcomed by the villagers, then
betrayed by them. In U.S. custody, they attracted attention because of their
supposed insights into the workings of the Chinese government, but it was apparent
from early on that they had not been involved with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda,
and that there was no reason to hold them.
Unfortunately for the Uighurs, however, the declaration of their innocence
only prefaced further problems, as they joined one of Guantánamo's least
enviable groups: cleared prisoners who, because of international treaties, cannot
be returned to their home countries for fear that they will be subjected to
torture, or worse. The U.S. government had obligingly declared those opposed to
Chinese rule in Xinjiang province as "terrorists," in order to secure
support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and had even allowed – or invited
– Chinese interrogators to question the men in Guantánamo, but when it
came to returning them to China they refused to do so.
Attempts to persuade other countries to accept the Uighurs – and other cleared
prisoners who faced similar problems with repatriation – were both long and
largely futile. Despite the fact that some of these men had been regarded as
wrongly detained while they were in U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, and many
had been cleared after military tribunals in Guantánamo in 2004, it was
not until May 2006 that one country – Albania, one of Europe's poorest nations
– could be prevailed upon to accept five of the men, who were joined, in December
2006, by another three cleared prisoners from Algeria, Egypt, and the former
Living in a UN refugee camp in Tirana has not been without its problems
– there is no Uighur community in Albania, no prospect of work, and no opportunity
for the men to have contact with their families – but it is at least better
than being in Guantánamo, where their compatriots, who have, for the
most part, also been cleared for release (the exact details are, like much else
at Guantánamo, difficult to gauge with absolute confidence), remain in
a limbo that seems, literally, to be without end.
Compounding their suffering, the Uighurs, like the majority of the dozens of
other cleared prisoners, are held not in comfort in Camp 4 (Guantánamo's
only block with communal dorms) but in Camp 6, a maximum security prison in
which they are held in complete isolation, in metal cells without windows, for
22 to 23 hours a day.
One of these men is Abdulghappar, who is now 35 years old. In 2004, he explained
to his military tribunal that he had traveled to Afghanistan to "get some
training to fight back against the Chinese government," and added that
he had nothing against the United States. He said that his own people "and
my own family are being tortured under the Chinese government," and when
asked, "Was it your intention when you were training to fight against the
U.S. or its allies?" came up with an answer that summed up the feelings of
all his imprisoned compatriots: "I have one point: a billion Chinese enemies,
that is enough for me. Why would I get more enemies?"
Abdulghappar recently wrote a letter to his lawyers, which was declassified
by the military censors who review all correspondence between lawyers and their
clients. It was then passed to the Associated Press, who quoted parts of the
letter in an article last
week, which was then picked up by other media outlets.
In the hope of providing Abdulghappar with more of his own voice, however,
I asked his lawyers for a copy of the letter, which I reproduce in its entirety
below. As it is a translation, I have taken the liberty of editing the language
to convey his message more fully.
Abdulghappar's Letter From Guantánamo
How are you, Mr. J. Wells Dixon and Ms. Seema
Saifee? I hope that this letter reaches you before you come over, and I hope
that it will be a little beneficial for our Turkistani brothers' situation here.
We, the Turkistani brothers, left our homeland in order to escape from the
brutal suppression and unfair treatment from the Chinese government towards
our people. The Uighur youth back home were either incarcerated because of false
accusations or prosecuted and executed because of bogus allegations. It was
extremely difficult for any Uighur to see a future for themselves within our
homeland, and both young and middle-aged Uighurs started to leave East Turkistan
and try to find survival abroad, if anyone could find a way to get out. We,
the Uighurs in Guantánamo, are also like those Uighurs. We left our homeland
for the same cause and sought solace in our neighboring countries.
As you know, for some specific reasons we ended up in Afghanistan. When we
arrived in Afghanistan, the U.S. army invaded. We had to depart for Pakistan,
since we could not stay in Afghanistan. As we did not know anyone who could
help us there, we had no other choice but to leave. The Pakistani people then
arrested us and turned us over to the Pakistani government. Subsequently, the
Pakistani government sold us to the U.S. Army for bounties. The U.S. Army then
brought us to Guantánamo.
Since the very beginning of the interrogations, we have been saying this. Our
circumstances are very clear to the U.S. government, the U.S. Army and related
agencies. Thus, the East Turkistani people and we, the Uighurs in Guantánamo,
have never had any revulsion against the U.S. at any time, and this would never
be possible, because our homeland is being occupied and we need the help of
We were very pleased at the beginning when the Pakistanis turned us over to
American custody. We sincerely hoped that America would be sympathetic to us
and help us. Unfortunately, the facts were different. Although in 2004 and 2005
we were told that we were innocent, we have been incarcerated in jail for the
past six years until the present day. We fail to know why we are still in jail
We still hope that the U.S. government will free us soon and send us to a safe
place. Being away from family, away from our homeland, and also away from the
outside world and losing any contact with anyone is not suitable for a human
being, as, also, is being forbidden from experiencing natural sunlight and natural
air, and being surrounded by a metal box on all sides.
I was very healthy in the past. However, since I was brought to Camp 6, I got
rheumatism. My joints started to hurt all the time and are getting worse. My
kidneys started to hurt ten days ago.
My countryman Abdulrazaq used to have rheumatism for a while, and since he
came to Camp 6 it got worse. Sometime in early August, the U.S. Army told Abdulrazaq
that he was cleared to be released, and also issued the release form to him
in writing. As a result, Abdulrazaq requested to move to a camp that had better
conditions, for health reasons. When his request was ignored he embarked on
a hunger strike, which has lasted for over a month now.
Currently, he is on punishment and his situation is even worse. He is shackled
to the restraint chair and force-fed twice a day by the guards, who wear glass
shields on their faces. This has taken place for the past 20 days. For someone
who has not eaten for a long time, such treatment is not humane. Abdulrazaq
would never want to go on hunger strike. However, the circumstances here forced
him to do so, as he had no other choice. If the oppression was not unbearable,
who would want to throw himself on a burning fire? In the U.S. Constitution,
is it a crime for someone to ask to protect his health and to ask for his rights?
If it does count as a crime, then what is the difference between the U.S. Constitution
and the Communist constitution? What is the difference between this and Hitler's
policies during the Second World War?
I have heard that an Egyptian man broke his back and became handicapped while
he was being handled by a team in Camp 1 or 2, and then he was sent home as
a crippled person for the rest of his life [Sami
el-Leithi, released in October 2005]. Another Libyan broke his arm also.
I worry that Abdulrazaq will face a similar or worse situation while being force-fed
twice a day for a long time, and I am also concerned for his psychological condition
as it is extremely difficult for him to keep his mental state normal under such
Recently, I started to wonder, "Why are we staying in this jail for so
long?" I wonder if we will be released after we damage our internal and
external organs and our arms and legs. Or is it necessary for a few Turkistanis
to die, as happened in the
past here in this jail, in order to gain others' attention and their concern
towards our matter? Such thoughts are in my mind all the time. The reason I
am writing this letter to you is that I sincerely hope that you and others related
to law and enforcement can solve this issue quickly and help us in a practical
Abdulghappar Turkistani (281)
December 12, 2007
Guantánamo Bay jail, Camp 6
[For more on the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see my book The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal