With no fanfare — just an announcement on its website — the Pentagon informed the world on Thursday that two Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo, held for over ten years but recognized as innocent almost from the moment of their capture, had been freed in El Salvador. As the Pentagon helpfully explained, the two men “were subject to release from Guantánamo as a result of a court order issued on October 7, 2008 by the US District Court for the District of Columbia,” and it was also noted that they “are voluntarily resettling in El Salvador.”
The Pentagon also noted, “As directed by the President’s January 22, 2009, executive order, the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive review of these cases,” and, as a result, they “were designated for transfer by unanimous consent among all six agencies on the task force.”
The release of these men is most welcome, because, primarily as a result of deliberate Congressional obstruction, no living prisoner has left Guantánamo for 15 months — the longest period without any releases in the prison’s ten-year history. The last living prisoner to leave Guantánamo was an Algerian, Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed, who won his habeas corpus petition and was repatriated, against his will, in January 2011, but the last two men to leave the prison had actually left in coffins, having died in the prison in February and May last year.
In addition, to say that the release of these two men was long overdue would be an understatement. Twenty-two Uighurs (Turkic Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province) were initially held in Guantánamo — refugees from oppression, who had been living in a rundown settlement in Afghanistan’s mountains, and who were swept up in the “war on terror” and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Five were freed in Albania in 2006, while George W. Bush was still President, and the administration accepted that it was unsafe to return them to China, but the 17 other men — including the two released in El Salvador — had to wait until 2008 for the Bush administration to drop its claims that any of them were “enemy combatants.”
When Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered their release on October 7, 2008, after granting their habeas corpus petitions, he intended for them to be resettled in the U.S., but the Bush administration appealed, the D.C. Circuit Court issued a stay, and the full court, backed by President Obama’s Justice Department, ruled against Judge Urbina — and the Uighurs — in February 2009, claiming that immigration issues could not be decided by the courts. White House Counsel Greg Craig then initiated a plan to resettle some of the men on the US mainland, but this was shot down by President Obama when Republicans got wind of it, and threatened to cause him political difficulties.
While the Uighurs appealed to the Supreme Court, the Obama administration pulled out all the stops to find other countries that would take them. Four went to Bermuda in June 2009, six more went to the Pacific island of Palau in October 2009, and two others went to Switzerland in March 2010. However, the five who remained were let down by the Supreme Court, and seemed to be stranded permanently in Guantánamo, because they had turned down offers of resettlement in other countries, fearing that they would not be safe from the reach of the Chinese government.
Although the Pentagon did not release the names of the two men, Sabin Willett, a Boston-based attorney who “helped represent both men at various stages of their habeas corpus lawsuits,” told the New York Times that they were Ahmed Mohamed (also identified as Hammad Memet and Hammad Mohammed) and Abdul Razak (whose full name is Abdul Razak Qadir). He added that Mohamed “wants to become a salesman or merchant in El Salvador.”
Willett also said that “Salvadoran officials visited Guantánamo and interviewed both men more than a year ago,” and explained that although at one point the two men “grew frustrated and fired their legal team,” the lawyers “continued to help informally in interactions between them and the government.”
The two men had both been in the settlement in the Afghan mountains when it was bombed by US forces following the US-led invasion in October 2001, and had then fled, eventually ending up in Pakistan, where villagers welcomed them, but then sold them to US forces.
Abdul Razak Qadir, a former businessman, who had sold fabrics and animal skins in his homeland, is in his mid-thirties, and was single at the time of his capture. He was recently profiled for “Close Guantánamo” by his lawyer, Seema Saifee, who explained that, when his business proved too difficult to sustain, and he fell into debt, he was told about the settlement in Afghanistan, and traveled there. Saifee explained that he was “paid a monthly salary if he purchased food and clothing in the markets of Jalalabad and delivered them” to the settlement. In Guantánamo, Yusef Abbas, one of the three Uighurs still held, stated that Abdul Razak had also worked at the hospital in Jalalabad and took care of him after he was wounded when the settlement was bombed, until “there was a riot in the city” and he returned to the other Uighurs in the mountains, taking Abdul Razak with him, and then fleeing to Pakistan.
In Guantánamo, he found the isolation and the lack of care difficult to endure, and as one of his compatriots explained in a letter in December 2007:
My countryman Abdulrazaq used to have rheumatism for a while, and since he came to Camp 6 it got worse. Sometime in early August, the US army told Abdulrazaq that he was cleared to be released, and also issued the release form to him in writing. As a result, Abdulrazaq requested to move to a camp that had better conditions, for health reasons. When his request was ignored he embarked on a hunger strike, which has lasted for over a month now.
Currently, he is on punishment and his situation is even worse. He is shackled to the restraint chair and force-fed twice a day by the guards, who wear glass shields on their faces. This has taken place for the past 20 days. For someone who has not eaten for a long time, such treatment is not humane. Abdulrazaq would never want to go on hunger strike. However, the circumstances here forced him to do so, as he had no other choice. If the oppression was not unbearable, who would want to throw himself on a burning fire? In the US constitution, is it a crime for someone to ask to protect his health and to ask for his rights? If it does count as a crime, then what is the difference between the US constitution and the Communist constitution? What is the difference between this and Hitler’s policies during the Second World War?
Ahmed Mohamed, born in 1978, had left his homeland because of the discrimination against Uighurs in 1994, and had lived in Kyrgyzstan, and, for nearly two years, in Egypt, before returning to Kyrgyzstan in 1997, where a neighbor eventually told him about the settlement in the Afghan mountains. At Guantánamo, he explained, as did many of his compatriots, that he had only one enemy — the Chinese government. “The Chinese people have tortured and pressured the Uighur people really bad,” he said. “The Uighur people are trying to go all over the world now. One sixth of the world’s population is in China. They are a threat to the whole world. If I have such a large enemy, why would I go and fight with another enemy?”
The US authorities alleged that he was a weapons instructor, but in his tribunal he called one of his compatriots as a witness, who explained, “I saw that he was sick during that time. He has a stomach problem and he was helping with the kitchen work and helping the cook. He was also studying the language.” Although his tribunal cleared him for release in 2004, concluding that he was not an “enemy combatant,” he was one of an unknown number of prisoners subjected to “do-over” tribunals. These were convened in secret in Washington D.C. with different military officers — often on more than one occasion — until they delivered the desired verdict, and in Mohammed’s case he was not finally vindicated until 2008.
Nevertheless, although the release of these two men is to be welcomed unconditionally, the three Uighurs who are still held must not be forgotten, and nor must the other 84 men, of the 169 still held, who were also cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force.
Although the identities of the cleared men have not been officially released, it appears that they also include Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who should be returned to his family in the UK without further delay, and other men in need of resettlement, like the Uighurs. One of these is Djamel Ameziane, profiled last week, an Algerian whose case has been taken up by the the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Other candidates — not cleared, or not necessarily cleared — include Afghans like Shawali Khan and Abdul Ghani, whose pointless detention should have been highlighted in recent discussions about releasing a handful of Taliban leaders as part of the peace process in Afghanistan, and Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah, the last two Kuwaitis, whose ongoing detention only confirms the distortions of justice still in force at Guantánamo, and whose return would be welcomed by the Kuwaiti government, a strong ally of the US in the Gulf, but one whose Parliamentarians have been unafraid to speak out recently, and to call for the return from Guantánamo of their remaining citizens.
In addition, we know from the Task Force’s report that 58 of these men are Yemenis, and at some point the moratorium on releasing any Yemenis — announced by President Obama in January 2010, in the heat of the hysteria that greeted the news that the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been recruited in Yemen — must be lifted, or Obama’s legacy will be one in which, for long years, if not forever, decisions to release prisoners meant nothing, and everyone was actually subjected to arbitrary detention.