The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau says it will temporarily resettle a number of Uighur detainees currently being held in Guantanamo Bay. The 17 Uighurs are Turkic Muslims from northwestern China, captured after the Sept. 11 attacks but found not to be enemy combatants. They can't be returned to China for fear that Beijing might execute them.
Anwar Hassan, 35, has spent one-fifth of his life behind bars in Guantanamo Bay — so long, he has learned to speak English while there. He grew up in Gulja, Xinjiang province, in northwestern China, where paramilitary forces brutally suppressed anti-Chinese riots in 1997. His odyssey began in 1999, when he left China after being tortured during a one-month jail term. He says he was imprisoned for his Muslim beliefs.
Hassan left for Kyrgyzstan, then Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was captured along with 17 other Uighurs. One of them, Abu Bakkar Qassim, who was later released to Albania, wrote that they had been sold by Pakistani bounty hunters to the U.S. military "like animals for $5,000 a head." By February 2002, Hassan was at Guantanamo.
"I used to think that the Uighurs, particularly the Uighurs in Guantanamo, are the prisoners of international politics," said Uighur American lawyer Nury Turkel. "It forced me to believe that the Uighurs have become the prisoners of U.S. domestic politics."
A declassified FBI report indicates that international politics was a factor in their fate. The report said initially American officials considered handing the Uighurs back to China in return for its support in the war on terrorism. But that didn't happen. In August 2002, the U.S. listed a little-known group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as a terrorist organization. Many analysts believe it was a quid pro quo move to gain Chinese support.
The Uighurs then had to fight charges of affiliation with the newly listed group, said Hassan's lawyer, George Clarke.
"At the time they were picked up, it hadn't even been named as a terrorist organization — and none of them had even heard about it before they went to Guantanamo," Clarke said. "A Boy Scout shooting cans at the county dump has got more military training than these guys had. A couple of them fired an AK-47 for four or five rounds. It's ridiculous."
In September 2002, a visiting Chinese delegation was allowed to interrogate the Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay. One detainee said he was forcibly interrogated, threatened and deprived of sleep and food by the Chinese.
Two and a half years after Hassan arrived at Guantanamo, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, or CSRT panel, found him not to be an enemy combatant. So he was judged not to be affiliated with al-Qaida, or to be a threat to the U.S.
A few months later, that decision was reversed. Hassan's lawyer said a declassified Pentagon memo explained the decision this way: "Inconsistencies will not cast a favorable light on the CSRT process, or the work done by OARDEC."
Clarke interpreted the memo to mean that "it's inconsistent, so we have to flip him back. It won't shed a good light on the process if we don't flip him back to be an enemy combatant."
The same Pentagon memo said flipping Hassan's status would allow an opportunity to "further exploit" him in Guantanamo Bay.
Court filings show after that, Hassan spent some time in Camp Six, a supermax prison. He was in solitary confinement 22 hours a day, he never saw direct sunlight, his two hours of recreational time were spent in a cage — on alternating days, in the middle of the night; and he was punished for trying to touch or greet other detainees.
It wasn't until September 2008 that Hassan was again reclassified as a non-enemy combatant.
"It surprises me how patient these people are," said Rushan Abbas, who has interpreted for the Uighurs over the past seven years.
On Oct. 7 last year, a federal district court ordered that the Uighurs be released in the U.S., but an appeals court subsequently overturned the ruling.
Speaking before the latest court news was released, interpreter Abbas said the Uighurs have become used to disappointment. "It has been up and down from the beginning, that they have been told they are going to be released and then that doesn't happen," she said.
After a worldwide search for somewhere to resettle the detainees, the tiny Pacific archipelago of Palau has announced it would accept up to 17 of the Uighurs, subject to periodic review, as a humanitarian gesture.
President Johnson Toribiong released a statement saying it was "a small thing that we can do to thank our best friend and ally," the U.S. The deal coincides with discussions of about $200 million in U.S. aid, though American officials deny there is a link. It's not yet clear whether the U.S. has accepted the offer.
Despite his seven years in Guantanamo, Hassan is hopeful. He hopes to marry and have a family. He's looking forward — hoping that one day soon, he'll be able to get on with the rest of his life.