WASHINGTON // Kahar Barat, a Muslim Uighur from western China, believes the quiet cul-de-sac where he lives with his 77-year-old mother in Virginia is the ideal transitionary place for at least one of the 17 Uighur detainees who are expected to be released soon from Guantanamo Bay.
The detainees have spent the last seven years in the US detention camp in Cuba, and before that many of them were in Taliban camps in Afghanistan.
“They have been living in two different isolated worlds of Taliban camp and Guantanamo prison for more than 10 years,” said Mr Barat, an independent scholar who works from home. “I don’t think they’ll be dangerous, but brainwashed. Confusion is their reality.”
China says the 17 are terrorists who belong to an outlawed group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and on Thursday this week, the same day the new US president, Barack Obama, signed an executive order closing down Guantanamo Bay, demanded their return.
A US court last October cleared the 17 for release, but the US fears that sending them back to China would result in their persecution or torture and has been looking to home them either in the United States or a third country.
Mr Barat is one of several Washington, DC-based Uighurs who have offered rooms in their homes to the detainees, many of whom only speak Turkic, not English or Chinese.
“They’ve got so many wrong things in their minds,” he said from his home, where his mother keeps cups filled with tea and offers snacks of grapes – one of the specialities of the north-west region of China where they come from. “If we keep them in our homes, we will explain to them what’s the true reality of the outside world and what’s the reality of a democratic country.”
Mr Barat says young Uighur men in China face discrimination, religious harassment, false imprisonment and worse by the Chinese government. He can imagine numerous situations that could have caused the men to flee China, which they did, according to court documents.
“Most of those kids escaped from China, but met with deportations in neighbouring countries. They had to find wherever a safe place is,” he said, referring to why many went to Afghanistan, where they were assured a safe haven, that is until 2001 when the US launched its war on the Taliban.
Court documents say one of the detainees told officials he received basic military training – how to disassemble and clean pistols and rifles – at a camp that, according to the US government and China, was run by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a militant group seeking to create an independent Uighur state separate from China.
The United States in 2004 designated the group a terrorist organisation, but has said it does not consider any of the 17 a security threat.
Back in 2001, the men fled Afghanistan and wound up in Pakistan, where authorities turned them over to the US military for US$5,000 (Dh18,400) a head, according to their lawyers.
Since June 2002, they have been held at Guantanamo Bay. Ten of the men were cleared for release as early as 2003, another five were cleared in 2005 and the final two were cleared in the last few years.
“They [the US] thought they were fighters, they brought them over, tried them, and basically found out they happened to be innocent,” said Rebiya Kadeer, a leading Uighur rights activist who was freed from Chinese prison and released to the United States thanks in large part to petitions from the US government.
“It’s their luck to be captured by the Americans rather than by others, like the Chinese,” Ms Kadeer said of the detainees, speaking through a translator at the Washington, DC, offices of the Uyghur American Association. “When the government made the mistake, the judicial system and the people exposed it.”
Mr Obama issued an executive order this week to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within one year, but advocates are hoping the Uighurs’ detention will be resolved much sooner than that. The difficulty has been finding safe countries to take them in.
Although several other Uighur detainees were released from Guantanamo into Albania in 2006, a country with no Uighur community, Joanne Mariner, director of the terrorism programme at Human Rights Watch, said it has been difficult to find homes for the rest because countries fear the Chinese reaction.
“Most countries do not want to pick a fight with China,” she said.
Ms Mariner, who has been working with governments to try to place the Uighurs, said Europe would be more inclined to help resettle cleared Guantanamo detainees if the United States takes in a few.
“The Uighurs are in some ways the most likely group” for resettlement in the United States, she said. That is partly because Uighurs in general are considered relatively pro-American.
Ms Kadeer said the local Uighur community would educate the detainees and invite others to give workshops. Although she has not spoken with any of the detainees personally, she does not expect they would harbour any long-term resentment about their seven-year detention because it could have been much worse.
“I’m going to speak to them directly about the prison system in China and basically justice in the world and how it’s different,” she said.
Ms Kadeer noted that, like many of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, the Uighurs have had diligent legal representation from some of the country’s top law firms, which have taken the cases on a pro-bono basis.
Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior council at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal think-tank, welcomed the representation, but said that until recently the legal process available to detainees had been a
“Everyone recognises that some of the people we are holding should be prosecuted to the full power of the law. But we have been holding people in a black hole. They have effectively been in a legal black hole for seven years.”
Dana Perino, the former White House press secretary under George W Bush, has said the October ruling to release the Uighurs “could be used as precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks of 9/11, who may also seek release into our country”.
But Ms Franklin said the order to release the Uighurs was based on the facts of their circumstances. If the order is allowed to stand, it would serve as a precedent that release is possible in these cases, “but only for those who first also prevail on their claims that they are not enemy combatants or dangerous”.
Mr Bush has appealed the order but advocates for the Uighurs say the Obama administration could withdraw that appeal and simply bring the detainees to the United States or find another host country – preferably one with a Uighur community.
“Definitely they need the families like us,” Mr Barat said. “We know the language. Our experience and our condition is fitted to them.”