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Uighur detainees at Guantanamo pose a problem for Obama

The administration, already viewed with suspicion by Beijing, doesn't want to send the soon-to-be-freed ethnic separatists back to China -- which is demanding just that.

February 18, 2009|Peter Spiegel and Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Hozaifa Parhat, a fruit seller from China's Muslim west, spoke passionately before a Guantanamo tribunal about his love for America and swore he never planned to fight the United States.

The Chinese, however, were another matter.

"I left my country to try to get something, get back and liberate my people and get our country independence," the ethnic Uighur testified in November 2004.

Seven years after he was detained near Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Parhat and 16 fellow Chinese Uighurs appear likely to be the first of the 245 prisoners still at the U.S. military prison in Cuba to be set free under the Obama administration.

President Obama has made closing the camp a priority, and federal courts have so far ruled that the Uighur detainees present no threat to the United States.

But freed to where? China is insisting that the Uighurs be sent home to face trial for separatist activities. It has further intimated that any country that offers them political asylum will in effect be harboring dangerous terrorists.

"On the issue of the Chinese terrorist suspects detained in Guantanamo, we have repeatedly stated that we oppose any country receiving these people," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said this month.

How the Uighurs are handled could play a role in defining what kind of relationship the Obama administration forges with Beijing in its early months. China has made it clear that it wants to be considered an ally in the battle against terrorism, which is coming closer to China's borders as the administration shifts focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The fate of the Uighurs also creates a sticky situation for Washington's Western allies, which have applauded Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo prison but don't want to jeopardize their trade ties with China. Germany, Canada and Sweden have been mentioned as possibly offering asylum to the Uighurs.

"Nobody is going to want to take the Uighurs because of the Chinese pressure," said Parhat's Boston-based attorney, Sabin Willitt. "Every time we got an audience with the third deputy assistant minister of [any country], we always found the Chinese minister was ahead of us, having had a full lunch with the foreign minister."

The Uighurs live primarily on the wild northwestern steppes of China in a region officially known as Xinjiang but called Turkestan by the Uighurs. Beijing has come under widespread criticism from the United States and others for its repression of rights and religious freedom there.

People familiar with the talks within the administration said there was little chance the White House would agree to return the Uighurs to China, given the widespread belief that they might be tortured or executed if sent back.

But because of allies' reluctance to accept the refugees, human rights groups and Uighur advocates believe Obama may be forced to allow them to settle in Washington's Virginia suburbs, where there is a large community of Uighur expatriates. The administration has already shown leniency toward the Uighurs: Days after Obama's inauguration, Parhat was allowed to call his mother for the first time in nearly seven years.

Although Obama has given his administration a year to decide how to deal with the Guantanamo detainees, the Uighur question is likely to become an issue much sooner.

Human rights groups and lawyers for the 17 men have begun to push for their immediate release, noting that the only thing that prevents their freedom is a Bush administration decision to challenge last year's court ruling that they be freed immediately.

Nearly three years ago, the U.S. released five Uighurs from Guantanamo, sending them to Albania, the only country that would take them at the time.

The Balkan country proved a poor match for the refugees, and Albania was spurned by China for accepting them, which led it to refuse to take any other Uighur detainees.

"The Albanians took a big diplomatic and economic hit," said a Pentagon official involved in detainee issues. "No one wants to do that again."

According to unclassified documents and transcripts of U.S. military tribunals released by the Pentagon, the men range in age from late 20s to mid-40s. Nearly all said they fled China to escape poverty and oppression, ending up in Afghanistan because it was one of the few nearby countries that wouldn't send them back to China.

Parhat is typical. In his testimony before a Guantanamo tribunal, he said he left Xinjiang in May 2001 because he was barely making a living selling fruit and had heard rumors of a camp in Afghanistan where Uighurs trained to fight the Chinese.

He found his way to the camp in Tora Bora, run by Hasan Mahsum, a well-known separatist leader believed to have founded the radical East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

At the camp, the Uighurs read the Koran and trained to use Kalashnikov rifles, the men told their tribunals.

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