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Free but homeless after Guantanamo

BBC
Michael Buchanan
January 7, 2009

On taking office, US President-elect Barack Obama is expected to quickly push for the closure of Guantanamo Bay - and the release of 60 detainees. But as the plight of ex-inmate Adel Hakimjan, a Chinese Uighur, shows it will not be an easy solution, writes the BBC's Michael Buchanan.

He has been abused, persecuted, traded, and falsely imprisoned. Yet Adel Hakimjan is cheery, engaging and confident, talking easily about the past tumultuous decade which has seen him forcibly travel the world.

Adel, 34, fled his home and family in north-west China in 1999, having been accused by the Chinese authorities of being part of the East Turkestan Independence Movement, a group fighting for an independent, self-governing homeland.

He says he was harassed, tortured and imprisoned by the Chinese.

He left Xinjiang province intending to travel to Turkey where he hoped to find work.

In late 2001 he found himself in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where, following the US-led invasion, he says he was sold to American forces by bounty hunters and ended up at a detention facility in Kandahar.

"We were locked up in Kandahar for about six months. We were given two meals a day, one at midday and the other at midnight. We couldn't sleep at night, as we were 22 of us in the same room and many of us were often taken out for nighttime interrogation.

"When they took one of us out for interrogation, they woke up everyone in the room and ordered us to stand in the corner with the hands held on the heads.

"We were really exhausted during that six-month custody."

Adel says his interrogations became easier once he convinced the Americans he was not involved in any terrorism or aiding the Taleban.

He became hopeful he would be released, but "all of a sudden, we were all taken to Guantanamo".

Chinese questioning

There the interrogations continued until a Combatant Status Review Tribunal concluded he had not been an "illegal combatant" and he was moved to Camp Iguana, a far less severe regime.

His worst experience at Guantanamo, he says, was when the US allowed Chinese interrogators to question him.

"Compared to the American interrogators, the Chinese were more brutal.

"The Chinese threatened us by saying: 'Don't think that you are untouchables because you are currently in American custody. We came here to take you back to China. You may not talk to us here, but you will be talking to us when we get you to Urumqi or Beijing. We will then try to settle the matter.'

"On the whole, they treated us quite brutally."

Therein lay Adel's problem.

The Americans were happy to release him and the 22 other Uighurs they were holding captive.

And the Chinese were willing to take them.

But all the Uighurs refused to return to China, fearing persecution on their return.

Dr Michael Dillon, a China expert, says they have every reason to be frightened:

"The Chinese authorities would certainly want them back, would want to detain them, put them on trial and there is a very, very serious possibility that some of them - if not all of them - would be subject to the death penalty."

Albanian offer

So the quest began to find a country that would accept Adel.

Eventually Albania - one of Europe's poorest nations but a mainly Muslim country - said that Adel and four other Uighurs could move there.

"When I learned that I was going to be taken to Albania, I was worried and couldn't trust it," he says.

"I thought that it could be a trick and we might be taken to China instead.

"We arrived in the middle of the night, the plane landed and I looked around the airport and it was completely dark. Then three or four black cars approached and the back of the plane was opened.

"It was a really frightening and panicking experience for me.

"Then, we saw some people get out of the cars and noticed that they had yellow hair and looked European. We were really relieved to see them."

Adel and his four friends were initially held at an immigration camp in Albania, where they were promised housing, travel documents, language courses and help finding a job.

But the housing and documents took months to materialise and the language courses were abruptly stopped - after just three classes.

Worst of all, Adel didn't feel safe in Albania.

He says the Chinese government made repeated efforts to have the Albanians hand all the Uighurs over to China, and he feared the Chinese would simply "pay someone to harm us without being directly involved itself".

So in November 2007 Adel's lawyers persuaded Sweden to give him a four-day visa to lecture about human rights.

Waiting for him at Stockholm airport was his sister, Kauser, who hadn't seen him in almost a decade.

"We couldn't get enough of each other, and had endless things to talk about," she recalls.

Adel immediately applied for asylum. The Swedes rejected his claim and he's now appealing against their decision.

His lawyer, Sten de Geer, says he has a good chance of being allowed to stay:

"Albania should not be considered the first country of asylum because Adel has not chosen Albania as his country of asylum. He has been forced to apply for asylum there.

"As his sister is living in Sweden, and she's the only relative he has outside China, there are very strong humanitarian reasons to give him a permit to live here."

Adel has a wife and three children back in China, the youngest of whom he has never seen.

Even if he is allowed to stay in Sweden he is not confident of ever seeing them as he does not think the Chinese authorities will let them leave.

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