In the long and shameful history of the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, where most of the 779 men held by the US military during the last eighteen and a half years were never charged or put on trial (as remains the case for the majority of the 40 men still held), the prevailing lawlessness and abuse do not necessarily end with a prisoner’s release.
Of the 729 men — and boys — released from Guantánamo since it opened (532 under George W. Bush, 196 under Barack Obama, and just one under Donald Trump), most have been sent back to their home countries, where, fundamentally, they have no protection from their home governments if, for example, their countries’ leaders decide that they should be imprisoned, or have their lives disrupted in any way, either sporadically, or even on a permanent basis.
For around 130 of these former prisoners, however, new homes had to be found for them in third countries — in most cases, because the US government accepted that it was unsafe for them to be returned to their home countries. In the cases of the majority of the Yemenis freed, for example, the US government regarded it as unsafe to repatriate them because of the security situation in Yemen, while in other cases — Syria, for example — the US accepted that the government could not be trusted to treat them humanely. This was also the case for 22 Uighurs — Turkic-speaking Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province — whose lives were in danger from the Chinese government.
The Bush administration eventually realized that the Uighurs, most of whom had fled their homeland, and had been living in a rudimentary camp in Afghanistan’s mountains, had never posed a threat to them, as their only enemy was the Chinese government, which had long been oppressing them, and which, in recent years, of course, has stepped up its repression, imprisoning large numbers of Uighurs (more than a million, according to reports) in internment camps.
The first of the Uighurs to be freed — five men in total — were released in May 2006, when they were given new homes in Albania after being found to be “no longer enemy combatants” by an administrative review process in Guantánamo, the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. A complication for the US government was that the Chinese government vigorously opposed any course of action other than repatriation, and so countries had to be found that were not easily intimidated by China. Under Barack Obama, however, the other 17 Uighurs — who had their release ordered in October 2008 after a judge granted their habeas corpus petition — were all eventually released: four to Bermuda in May 2009, six to the remote Pacific island of Palau in October 2009, two to Switzerland in March 2010, two to El Salvador in April 2012, and three to Slovakia in December 2013.
Unfortunately, being resettled in a third country provides no guarantee of fair treatment, and, in fact, many resettled prisoners have found that they remain stymied by the apparently ineradicable taint of Guantánamo, and, like all the released prisoners, have absolutely no unassailable rights, because of having been designated “enemy combatants” — even if, as with five of the Uighurs, they were among the lucky few to have subsequently been re-designated as ”no longer enemy combatants.”
The fathers separated from their children
As I explained in an article last year, The Taint of Guantánamo: Uighurs in Albania and Bermuda Seek Permission to Join Their Families in Canada, one of the men released in Albania in May 2006, and two of the men released in Bermuda in June 2009, have, since being freed, met and married and had children with Canadian citizens, but have hit a brick wall when it comes to getting the Canadian government to allow them to join their spouses and their children in Canada.
Bringing the story up to date, Natasha Comeau, a Fellow in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, recently wrote an article for the Toronto Star, in which she spoke to the men and their wives.
Ayub Mohammed, the youngest of the men sent to Albania (who was just 17 when he first ended up in US custody), is married Melike Aierken, who lives in Montreal. The Star explained that he was captured “[w]hile passing through Pakistan”, when he and the majority of the other Uighurs “were kidnapped by bounty hunters” and “turned over to the US military in December 2001.”
As the Star also explained, “They were detained due to unsubstantiated claims that they were part of an alleged terrorist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM),” a separatist group that “has claimed responsibility for a number of violent attacks and riots carried out by Uighurs in China and at Chinese embassies abroad.” However, all the Uighurs who ended up in US custody were approved for release by an internal review process, and by the US courts, and, moreover, alleged links between ETIM and al-Qaida were found not to exist.
Ayub Mohammed and Melike Aierken have two children, and, as Aierken stated, “When our children see planes in the sky, they ask me, is my dad on that airplane, when is he going to come to Canada?”
From Albania, speaking through an interpreter, Mohammed said, “I thought there would be opportunities for me in Albania once I graduated from university, but there isn’t. Once my first child was born, I just couldn’t see a future for my children in Albania. This is the reason I want to go to Canada.”
Aierken, a Canadian citizen, “was sponsored to come to Canada from China by her father before meeting Mohammed online and moving to Albania to be with him,” as the Star explained, adding, “She has since returned to Canada to raise her two children, who are also Canadian citizens, and began the process of sponsoring Mohammed to join her in 2014.” However, as the Star added, “The process has been marked by many unexplained delays.”
As Mohammed also explained, “We are waiting for some positive news. I’ve been separated from my wife and kids for one and a half years. The separation is very hard.” Since Aierken returned to Canada in 2016, she has only been able to make “two short visits to see her husband.”
In Bermuda and Canada, meanwhile, two other couples — Khalil Mamut and Aminiguli Mamut, and Salahidin Abdulahad and Zulpiye Yaqubare — are also struggling with the Canadian authorities.
As the Star explained, “Khalil Mamut met his wife through a mutual friend while she was living in China. After communicating online for months, Aminiguli Mamut came from China to live in Bermuda, where she married Khalil. Their connection to Canada began in 2014 when their first child became very sick and was transferred to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. Khalil Mamut was unable to join his wife and son for the treatment.”
As the Star added, “Aminiguli decided to permanently move to Canada to continue medical treatment for their son. She and the boy were granted refugee protection in 2015 and permanent residence in 2017.”
Salahidin Abdulahad, meanwhile, “met his wife, Zulpiye Yaqub, online and she also came from China to live in Bermuda.” However, “after experiencing depression and social isolation in the country she decided to move to Canada to be closer to her Uighur community,” because “[t]here are an estimated 2,200 Uighurs in Canada.” She “now lives in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area], was granted refugee status in 2013 and permanent residence in 2016.”
The former prisoners, however, have not been so fortunate. As the Star explained, “Mamut and Abdulahad have both been waiting for decisions since 2015 and 2014 respectively. Mamut left China at 18 and was studying English in Lahore, Pakistan; Abdulahad left at 24 for school and was only in Pakistan six weeks before being detained.”
Ayub Mohammed, meanwhile, “was denied permanent resident status in 2016 by a Canadian immigration officer in Rome.” The officer cited “reasonable grounds to believe that he was a member of an organization — the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — that engaged in terrorism,” despite it never having been established that the Uighurs sent to Guantánamo actually had any meaningful connection to ETIM, and with no one ever having actually suggested that they had any connection whatsoever to any of the actions undertaken by ETIM in China or against embassies abroad.
Mohammed, in fact, has strenuously denied the claims, and his lawyer, Prasanna Balasundaram, based in Toronto, at Downtown Legal Services, says there is “overwhelming evidence” to show that he was not a member of ETIM.
In 2019, Mohammed successfully appealed against the denial of permanent resident status “based on breaches of procedural fairness,” and his case is “now in the process of being reassessed for admissibility” by — oddly, it seems to me — the High Commission of Canada in Nairobi and New York, but neither they, nor the Canadian Ministry of Public Safety, would comment on “the cases and the security concerns associated with them,” and there was also no reply from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, which was ultimately responsible for turning down his claim.
Remembering his time in Guantánamo, Mamut, speaking from Bermuda by phone, through an interpreter, recalled his hopes regarding his eventual release. “I continued to have faith because I have never done anything wrong to anybody, from any country, including China,” he said, adding, as the Star described it, that “he did not know the reason he was being detained until he got to Guantánamo and learned about the terrorist attacks in the US of Sept. 11, 2001.”
Mohammed, who had a harder time in Guantánamo, said, “Every time I think about my time in Guantánamo it takes me a while to recover because of the psychological impact reliving that time has on me.” In a filmed interview, he has described how he was beaten, “had gas sprayed in his face, was sexually assaulted by guards, refused food and witnessed others commit suicide.” He “went on hunger strikes to protest his treatment and was sent to the ‘isolation block’ a number of times for up to one month alone. He was never in the same cellblock as other Uighurs.”
When it came to being released, as the Star explained, “none of the men had a say in where they were sent.” When Mohammed arrived in Albania’s capital, Tirana, he “didn’t know where he was until he got off the plane and was terrified that they had returned him to China.” As the Star added, “He has been trying to leave Albania ever since.”
Abdulahad and Mamut, meanwhile, ended up in Bermuda, even though Abdulahad had been intended for release in the US, a bold and decisive plan by Barack Obama, which would have done more than anything to puncture the enduring right-wing myths about how dangerous the Guantánamo prisoners are, but which was abandoned under Republican pressure.
Mamut, meanwhile, said, “I didn’t know anything about Bermuda, but I had heard of the Bermuda Triangle. I told my lawyers I didn’t want to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle.” Speaking of his ongoing inability to be with his family, Mamut also explained, “The separation is really hard for me and my wife. I wasn’t there when my second and third children were born. I wasn’t there at my wife’s side when she had a C-section.”
Abdulahad also explained his difficulties. “My wife delivered our third child alone at home (in Toronto) because she couldn’t connect with the doctor,” he said, adding, “Our two other children saw her give birth. They were so scared, they were traumatized.” As the Star added, “They are expecting their fourth child in September, and Abdulahad desperately wants to be at his wife’s side.” He urged the Canadian government to give him, at the very least, “a one- or two-month visa so I can take care of my children and wife.”
Zulpiye Yaqub, his wife, said, “It’s really hard for me raising three children alone in Canada. My children need their dad.”
The men’s lawyer, Prasanna Balasundaram, “began representing Mohammed in December 2016 to appeal the inadmissibility decision,” which, he told the Star, was “very problematic.”
As he explained, “Typically, you can have a judicial review determined within eight to 10 months, but it took almost two years before a hearing and that’s because the government opposed virtually every procedural request we had along the way.” The obstruction “included opposing the disclosure of material that had found Mohammed inadmissible on security grounds.”
Balasundaram began representing the Uighurs in Bermuda after meeting Aminiguli Mamut and Zulpiye Yaqub at Mohammed’s successful appeal hearing in Toronto in February 2019, when “over 20 people from the Uighur community showed up to hear the judicial review.”
Balasundaram explained that the court had determined that the inadmissibility decision against Mohammed, in 2016, “fell short of the standard of fairness that we expect in these situations, and therefore the Federal Court ordered the redetermination. They said, you have to do this over again and you have to do it right.” Even so, he stressed, “Mohammed’s case could still go either way.”
He added that he “continues to have concerns about the process and delays in Mohammed’s case. For example, the case has been transferred from the Canadian embassy in Rome to Nairobi, Kenya. But officials there are continuing to rely on interview notes from Rome, where Mohammed was not provided an interpreter, nor was he informed of inadmissibility concerns regarding security. For these reasons the Federal Court found that this interview breached procedural fairness.”
In addition, all three men received “procedural fairness letters” in February and March this year, which, Balasundaram said, “are to inform applicants that the government has reason to believe they will be denied acceptance.” He added, “The inadmissibility issue for these three men is security inadmissibility, and more specifically their membership in a terrorist organization, ETIM. But the inadmissibility that they’re trying to pursue and determine, I think, is ultimately spurious. I don’t think that there is any serious reason to believe that they are members of ETIM.”
As the Star explained, “All three men have responded to the letters, and Mohammed received follow-up questions from the visa office in Kenya in June. Mamut and Abdulahad received letters in early July disclosing limited files that had been requested by Downtown Legal Services back in February.” Balasundaram complained about the length of time involved. “This process certainly should not take years and years,” he said.
Mohammed summed up the problem succinctly “I guess I have become sacrificed to politics,” he said, adding, “When this narrative of radical terrorism groups became associated with Uighurs, I became sacrificed to that narrative even though I’ve never supported any kind of violent resistance.”
The Star noted that, “While there is no evidence of Chinese interference with the men’s immigration process, current tensions between Canada and China may be influencing their cases.” The Star also noted that China had “previously pressured Sweden to deny another former Guantanamo detainee’s asylum plea” — one of the five men released in Albania, who, nevertheless, was eventually accepted as a refugee in 2009, despite having his asylum claim turned down in 2008. As I noted above, however, the Chinese government clearly follows the Guantánamo Uighurs’ cases, and it is not unreasonable to suggest that some pressure has been exerted.
In addition, as the Star noted, the situation in China has also impacted on the former Guantánamo prisoners. As the newspaper explained, “the men’s families have also been facing persecution, and because of communication blackouts in Xinjiang province, none of the men have been able to contact family in China since 2016.”
Abdulahad said, “In 2015, three of my siblings were arrested by the Chinese government and sent to concentration camps.” The Star noted that they were each sentenced to 12 years in prison, a situation that has “taken a major toll on his mental health.”
The Star also noted that “Mohammed’s brother and other relatives are also in the detention camps,” and quoted Canadian Uighur activist Mehmet Tohti, the executive director of the Uighur Rights Advocacy Project, saying, “We are talking about concentration camps here. We are talking about ethnic cultural genocide in the 21st century,” and adding, “There is not enough reaction from the world.”
The Star also explained that Downtown Legal Services is “launching a campaign to share the stories of Mohammed, Mamut and Abdulahad with the public, in the hopes this will prompt the government to proceed faster with their cases,” which seems like a very good idea, as the current situation, with the Canadian government relying on long-discredited claims about threat posed by the men, is needlessly cruel.
As Mohammed said, “Every time my family comes and leaves, I lose myself and become very depressed. So now, I have decided I will wait it out, I will be patient and then when we are reunited again it will be permanent.”
Abdulahad, meanwhile, asked, “What father doesn’t want to rejoin their family? That is my biggest dream.”
In a follow-up article, the Toronto Star reported that Mohammed’s wife, Melike Aierken, is suffering from ill-health, no doubt exacerbated by her separation form her husband. Two weeks ago, she was admitted to a hospital in Montreal. As the newspaper explained, “She has thyroid problems and must wait an indeterminate amount of time for the results of a biopsy on her liver.” While she was in the hospital, her two children, aged four and nine, “were staying with a friend in lieu of any family in the city.” However, “[h]er medical troubles are not over and the stress of another hospital stint with no firm options to care for her children weighs heavily on her, as does the lack of a regular presence of a father in her children’s lives.”
Speaking to the Star “through a translator in a video interview in which she frequently fought back tears,” she said, “The kids miss their father. Their father misses the kids.”
Speaking of the long-discredited claims against all three men, Mehmet Tohti said they were being “victimized a second time by not being granted permanent residency,” and added that he believed it was “due to the spectre of their Guantánamo Bay detentions.” As he put it, “I don’t believe there is any security risk or threat for our safety. Basically, Canada is pushing them to prove themselves innocent (of) the sins they have never committed.”
As Melike Aierken said of her husband, “They let him go because he was innocent. If he was guilty, they never would have let him go.”
She added, however, that she was in “a state of flux and worry,” because of not knowing “how long the process for Mohammed’s immigration bid will take.” She added, “It’s a big responsibility taking care of children, especially during a pandemic,” and while friends might be able to look after her children for a few days if she has to spend more time in hospital, “long term I don’t have anyone else. I don’t have a plan.”
There is now a Change.org petition to the Canadian government — and specifically, Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship — calling for inadmissibility proceedings against Ayub Mohammed, Salahidin Abdulahad and Khalil Mamut to be suspended, and for them to be granted permanent residence status so that they can be reunited with their families. Please sign and share, if you can.