Guantanamo's Uighurs: No Justice in Solitary

JURIST Guest Columnist Seema Saifee, a litigator at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP in New York representing several Uighurs detained at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, says the US government continues to damage its own image by holding the men - all cleared for release - in complete isolation in the supermax-style facility known as "Camp VI" ...



British historian and journalist Andy Worthington has described Guantánamo as part of "a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the September 11 attacks." Among the casualties of this cruel and misguided response are 17 Uighurs. My firm represents 4.

The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority from the Xinjiang province of far-western China, a region they call "East Turkestan." Like the Tibetans, though less well-known, the Uighurs have faced systematic persecution under China's brutal control. Many of the Uighurs — or "Turkestanis" as they identify themselves — including our clients, fled their homeland to escape persecution and torture for their religious and political (or imputed political) beliefs.

In the fall of 2001, the United States military littered Pakistani and Afghan soil with leaflets offering "millions of dollars" to catch "murderers" and "enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life." In response to these promises, local tribesmen and warlords captured twenty-two Uighurs and sold them to the United States for substantial bounties. Quickly realizing its error, the United States military told the Uighurs they were mistakenly picked up and would soon be released. This was several years ago. In May 2006, 5 Uighurs were released to a refugee camp in Albania. The remaining 17, in the words of our client Abdulghappar, are "cleared for release but have nowhere to go."

In a twist of irony, the Uighurs regarded the United States as one of their strongest allies in their struggle for human rights and self-determination. Indeed, when locals turned them over to the United States, the Uighurs were relieved, even comforted. "We trusted the Americans. We believed in them. We believed all the promises they made to us." Abdulghappar, the man whose bright smile has been dimmed by six years of desperation, explained that he and the other Uighurs believed that the United States would be sympathetic to them and their plight.

But the United States has failed to abide by the promises it has made to the Uighurs. Now, more than six years later, the Uighurs remain imprisoned, without charge, and with no meaningful opportunity to contest their incarceration, which has left them estranged from their wives, parents, and children. The United States has reportedly lobbied more than one hundred countries to resettle the Uighurs, assuring these countries that the Uighurs pose no security threat. However, from the other side of its mouth, the United States continues to classify the Uighurs as "enemy combatants" — an invented term it uses in order to maintain its asserted authority to imprison them indefinitely.

In the meantime, conditions at Guantánamo have only worsened for these men. The Uighurs are currently confined in individual steel cells, which Abdulghappar refers to as a "metal box," in a supermax-style facility known as "Camp VI." Human contact is restricted to two hours a day of "rec" in individual units enclosed by chain-link fences, and ill-fated visits by riot guards (called the "Emergency Reaction Force") too frequently resulting in physical abuse.

But lawyers for the Uighur 17 will never give up. Oral argument is scheduled for April 4 in another Uighur case Parhat v. Gates, an action filed in the D.C. Circuit pursuant to the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 ("DTA"). In the first ever dispositive motion to be heard in a DTA case, the Court will consider whether — as a matter of law — Huzaifa Parhat is a non-combatant and should therefore be immediately released.

Other Uighur counsel are trying a different approach. In a petition for extraordinary relief filed last month, 6 Uighurs petitioned the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces for a writ mandating that the government treat them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and a writ prohibiting their confinement in Camp VI. If the government wishes to maintain its position that the Uighurs are "enemy combatants," it must afford them the treatment to which they are entitled as presumptive prisoners of war. Two weeks ago, the Armed Forces court ordered the government to show cause why the Uighurs should not be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

U.S. officials have publicly confirmed that the only obstacle to the Uighurs' release is locating a country of resettlement, a task that has proven arduous and as indefinite as their imprisonment. Though there is much lawlessness to Guantánamo, that a complete standstill in diplomatic efforts can render stateless men "enemy combatants," excuse their indefinite imprisonment, and justify their accommodations in the worst conditions available at Guantánamo is beyond irrational. The Uighurs have no intelligence value to the United States. Indeed, our clients have not been interrogated for years. Clearly, the only basis for their continued imprisonment in Guantánamo is a lodging concern. Solitary confinement is not the answer to diplomatic deadlock.

Abdulghappar became a hero, and risked reprisal by the Chinese, when he released (through his lawyers) a letter to the public candidly portraying the desperation and injustice suffered by the Uighurs in Camp VI. Indeed, the physical and psychological impact of Camp VI on these men is beyond description. One of our clients commenced a severe hunger strike as an act of protest against the military's refusal to transfer him to a more humane camp to alleviate his health troubles. Another client spoke to us about the things crawling into his head as a result of living in solitary confinement day after day after day.

Our government continues to damage its own image by holding these men — who have all been cleared for release — in complete isolation. Indeed, the United States has another option. Many of Guantánamo's inmates reside in Camp IV, a communal facility where prisoners are entitled to live, dine and pray together. Camp IV, though not a substitute for due process, provides relatively more suitable living arrangements for those men who are simply awaiting a boarding call to that C-17 to fly them to their new home. The United States can easily move the Uighurs to Camp IV pending the resolution of diplomatic efforts. Though political arrangements might have reached a temporary impasse, transferring the Uighurs to Camp IV requires only a simple phone call.


Seema Saifee is a litigator at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP in New York
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