Freedom for the Guantanamo Uighurs?

So, we finally seem to be in the midst of freeing 17 Uighurs held at Guantanamo since 2002, even though most of them have been cleared for release since 2003. Even though, as Amnesty International noted in a February 19 report:

The Bush administration had conceded that the Uighurs were not “enemy combatants” (even under its own definition of the concept), and had accepted that they could not be returned to their native China because they would face a serious risk of torture or execution there.

No other country would take them, the Bush administration wouldn’t let them be released into the U.S. 

Wait, surely change has come?  Afraid not, the Democrats wimp out again on an important principle, first Congress, then the President. As the Boston Globe reports:

Years later, after the Uighurs’ plight emerged in court, the Bush administration formally admitted they were not enemies. A judge ordered their release.

Then, a new president, who had campaigned on a vow to close Guantanamo, was on the point of admitting them to this country. But suddenly Congress was stampeded by the right, and President Obama ducked for cover. Congressional Democrats and many Republicans had applauded the call to close Guantanamo, but when it came to action, they ran for the exits. There were a few exceptions, like Senators Dick Durbin and Pat Leahy, and Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. But they seemed like schoolteachers after the bell had rung, trying to bring order to a ruck of noisy children, looking in vain for help to the principal’s office.

As the Washington Post notes:

The men were cleared for release by the Bush administration years ago; the federal courts that reviewed their cases concluded that there was no evidence to justify their imprisonment in the first place. Yet they languished behind bars because the United States could not return them to their native China for fear they would be tortured, or worse. Some 100 countries declined U.S. requests to take the Uighurs, in part because of Chinese threats of retaliation. U.S. lawmakers railed against the possibility of allowing the detainees into the United States, claiming that they were dangerous terrorists despite the assessments of a Republican and a Democratic president, military officers and an independent judiciary.

So far, four Uighurs have been freed from Guantanamo and released to Bermuda, with reports of Palau and maybe Italy to take others.  Unfortunately, not before “war on terror” frenzy was whipped up by some on the little island.  As the Boston Globe describes it:

Bermudian Premier Ewart Brown saw the humanitarian crisis that lay beneath the politics. He offered to accept four of them into the island’s guest worker program. At 3 a.m. on June 11, I watched on the Guantanamo airstrip as four innocent men were unshackled for the last time. They climbed aboard a charter aircraft. And when the sun rose, they stepped down to free soil in Bermuda, smiling broadly.

One said, “This is a small island, but it has a big heart.”

Others will have to judge the American heart. Within hours, the lunatic fringe was feeding lies to Bermudian media. CNN joined in the mugging with a false report from a Bush-era mouthpiece that the men had “trained in Al Qaeda camps.” (Before meeting interrogators, the men had never heard of Al Qaeda, and in court the Bush administration itself conceded that there was no Al Qaeda link. But in the feeding frenzy, truth did not matter.)

A political crisis exploded in Bermuda’s parliament. The minority called for a vote of no-confidence in the government. The British loudly protested not being asked permission.

The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority group in China and live in an “autonomous region” similar to Tibet. Their culture and religion is under attack by the Chinese government, as is the Tibetans.  I first became aware of the Uighurs when AI was working to free Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur business woman and mother of 11, who was in prison 5 years, and Amnesty International considered a Prisoner of Conscience.

There was a time when fighting the Communist Chinese government  was viewed as a good thing by ours, who would have welcomed them with open arms.  Post cold-war and post Sept. 11, however, and we’re letting the Chinese define them as terrorists for us.

As the New York Times notes:

Washington has walked a thin line in the handling of the Uighurs. It sought China’s support in antiterrorism efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks, branded an obscure Uighur independence group as terrorist and in 2002 allowed Chinese officials into Guantánamo to interrogate Uighur captives. The four men released here said that interrogation was a low point of their Guantánamo incarceration, with Chinese officials questioning them for long hours without food and threatening them and their families.

My head kind of spins, as a former cold-war kid who grew up on our government being “anti-communist.”  We’re letting the Chinese interrogate prisoners in our prisons.  Oh, wait, our prisons that aren’t our prisons and are on some mythological island where our laws don’t apply.

At any rate, it is good that our government finally has freed four more of these men, and may soon release the others (most of whom even the Bush Administration acknowledged haven’t done anything against us).