Home > Miscellaneous > Is it possible to exit Guantanamo gracefully?

Is it possible to exit Guantanamo gracefully?

Following President Obama’s announced plans to shut down Guantanamo within a year, the ability, or lack thereof, of Saudi Arabia and Yemen to successfully reform terrorists (two former detainees at Guantanamo have appeared in a recent video released by Al Qaeda) has been seriously questioned. While this issue has received a good deal of press coverage, the plight of the many prisoners who have already been declared innocent also stands to present a substantial challenge to the new administration.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addressed this issue in a lengthy article in Abu Dhabi’s The National, focusing on the specific case of 22 Uighar detainees. Uighars make up a substantial Muslim Turkic population in western China, where they regularly suffer abuse at the hands of the Chinese government out of fear of a possible separatist movement. The Uighars, however, are among some of the most pro-American Muslims in the world. These 22 prisoners were picked up in Afghanistan and shipped to Guantanamo, where, despite having been proven innocent by the Pentagon in 2005, they remain locked up:

They remained there because, in those intervening years, Washington realised the real problem with the Uighurs, one that will confront Barack Obama as he tries to figure out how to close Guantanamo Bay: What do you do with men you’ve branded as terrorists, once you realised they’re not?

Kurlantzick says that the Uighars have remained locked up partially due to the Bush administration’s fear of offending China:

Even as most American officials quietly doubted whether any real Uighur terrorist groups existed, in 2002 the State Department placed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement on its watchlist of international terror groups, alongside real global threats like al Qa’eda. “The entire mood toward China changed” in the White House, one former Bush administration official told me. “You had no appetite for taking on China now.”

Another way of framing this point is in the words of one of the detainee’s own words:

“If the US reads the Quran and [says] it is a crime [to read it], what is the difference between the US and China?”

Kurlantzick also points out that the current problem is finding a country willing to take in these men. Most European countries are turned off by the taint of Guantanamo that is sure to follow the released prisoners for the rest of their lives. They question why they should take on the responsibility of hosting the former detainees when the United States itself is unwilling.

Perhaps pressure by US courts and human rights activists will force the Obama administration to take a political risk and accept some of the Uighurs still in Cuba. In the past, Uighurs have found the US welcoming, and fit in relatively well; as Turkel notes, before the Guantanamo detentions, the Uighurs had one of the highest rates of refugee acceptance, per capita, into America.

–Ella Lipin, Trinity ’10

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