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Freed From Guantánamo but Stranded Far From Home

Four of five former Guantánamo prisoners, including Abu Bakker Qassim,
third from the left, outside a refugee center in Tirana, Albania.

By Neil A. Lewis
The New York Times
Tuesday 15 August 2006

WASHINGTON, Aug. 14 — Early on May 5, five Asian men who had been detained at the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for years as dangerous terrorists, boarded a military transport plane at the United States naval base there.

The men had just exchanged their prison garb for jeans, T-shirts and slip-on sneakers but were still in handcuffs as they boarded the plane, where they were shackled to bolts in the floor and surrounded by more than 20 armed soldiers. About 14 hours later, the plane landed in Albania, a poor Balkan nation eager to please Washington.

Interviews with lawyers and several officials in the United States and abroad showed that the flight, to a freedom of sorts for the five men, involved intense behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity in Washington; Ottawa; Tirana, Albania; Beijing; and elsewhere.

It also held implications for a United States Appeals Court, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the relations of several European countries with China. And it underlined the Bush administration’s difficulties in reducing the population at Guantánamo as international calls for it to be closed increased.

The five men were Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) who had been captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They had traveled there from their homeland in the Xinjiang province of China, where the Uighur people, most of whom are Muslims, have fought a low-level insurgency against Beijing’s rule for years.

For the five Uighurs, the transfer to Albania meant exchanging a military prison camp on the southeastern tip of Cuba for a bleak and unpromising future in one of Europe’s poorest countries where no one spoke their language. One of them, Abu Bakker Qassim, said in an interview, “I would rather be in a society where I can be with some of my countrymen, but where we are is better than Guantánamo.”

For the Bush administration, one of the immediate results of the transfer was an opportunity to sidestep yet another court challenge to its detention policies.

Shortly after the five men landed in Tirana, Albania’s capital and largest city, and only minutes before the close of business in Washington on a Friday, the Justice Department filed a brief with a federal appeals court there. The brief asked the court to cancel a hearing the next Monday on the Uighurs’ challenge to their continued detention in Guantánamo Bay. They had been held there for more than a year after the military’s special tribunal system had determined they were not “enemy combatants,” the ostensible reason for their imprisonment.

A federal judge had ruled that the Uighurs’ continued detention at Guantánamo was illegal and disgraceful, but he said he could not order them admitted to the United States, as their lawyers had requested. The appeals court was considering that issue. The Bush administration has opposed allowing Guantánamo detainees into the United States.

Upon learning the Uighurs were no longer at Guantánamo, the appeals court canceled the hearing.

A senior State Department official said in an interview that more than 100 countries had been approached about accepting the Uighurs but that only Albania did. Even though they were innocent, the official said, the five Uighurs could not be repatriated to China because Beijing regarded them as terrorists, and the law prohibited sending prisoners to places where they might be persecuted.

The countries that declined, including Washington’s best European allies, did not want to antagonize China, officials and analysts said.

The State Department official said the timing of their departure and the scheduled court argument was a coincidence. But a senior Justice Department official said there had been an intense push to avoid a situation in which the appeals court could order the Uighurs admitted into the United States. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of diplomatic relations.

For Albania, the willingness to accept the Uighurs solidified that nation’s standing with the United States and brought it a confrontation with China, which had been its patron during Albania’s split from the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

On the weekend of the Uighurs’ arrival in Tirana, the Chinese ambassador there protested to the Albanian prime minister, insisting they be returned to China. The ambassador repeated the demand on Monday.

But the following day, May 7, Vice President Dick Cheney publicly endorsed Albania’s much-hoped-for bid to join NATO. Charles Gati, an authority on Eastern Europe and a professor of European studies at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, said that Albania had courted Washington in recent years.

“They’re very eager to get into NATO, and to do this they have offered their services in a variety of ways,” Professor Gati said. “This is clearly what happened here.”

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who was at Mr. Cheney’s side when he announced United States support for Albania’s NATO bid, along with the bids of Croatia and Macedonia, said in a statement later that week that he trusted Washington’s assurances that the men were not terrorists and that he was proud to provide a humanitarian favor to Washington.

China remained unappeased and seemingly went beyond diplomatic pronouncements. In the first week of June, a Chinese delegation arrived unannounced at the barbed-wire-enclosed refugee camp on the outskirts of Tirana and demanded access to the Uighurs. Their intentions were unclear, but Albanian officials denied them entry.

Early this month, the Albanian government granted asylum to the Uighurs. The Albanian ambassador to Washington, Aleksander Sallabanda, said in a statement, “Our government is proud of its cooperation with the United States in the war on terror.”

For the five Uighurs, the consequences of the move to Albania were more prosaic and dispiriting. At the time of their transfer, their lawyers had been making progress in negotiating with the Canadian government for them to settle there. Canada has a thriving Uighur community, largely in Toronto.

But that possibility stalled when they were sent to Albania, their lawyers said.

More than 100 prisoners at Guantánamo were initially found to be enemy combatants and then ruled eligible to be freed but were not because it was impracticable to return them to their home countries, and no other country would accept them.

That group includes a few other Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo who have not been transferred to Albania because, their lawyers say, they have no scheduled court argument that the administration hopes to avoid.

The freed Uighurs now spend most of their days in the refugee camp in a poor slum of Tirana, according to Sabin Willett, a lawyer in Boston who represents two of the men. Mr. Willett said he had learned of the transfer only after it happened, and he went to Tirana that Monday.

Michael Sternhell, a New York lawyer who represents the other three Uighurs, said the men “are still effectively behind bars.” Mr. Sternhell says they have difficulty even traveling to the center of Tirana, and they use most of their monthly allowance of 40 Euros to call their families in China. The Albanian government provides room and meals at the center, for which it is reimbursed by the United States.

Although the Uighurs feel marooned in Albania, they are grateful to the government there. “Given that no other country is taking us, we’re all right with this,” said Mr. Qassim, a 37-year-old father of four who acts as the group’s spokesman. Speaking by telephone from the refugee center through a translator retained by The New York Times, Mr. Qassim said that the problems had begun when he and several fellow Uighurs had left their home to find a place to study the Koran, a practice he said was forbidden in China.

They went to Pakistan and then to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, he said. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a group of 17 Uighurs returned to Pakistan, where local tribesmen welcomed them warmly. After a lamb feast, the villagers betrayed them. They were taken to a mosque ostensibly to worship, but instead, Mr. Qassim and his lawyers said, they were sold to United States forces.

According to the transcripts of tribunals held at Guantánamo, they were accused of engaging in guerrilla training, but officials would not tell them on what basis they had made the accusations because the information was classified. Mr. Qassim said the Uighurs had indeed learned to use rifles while in Jalalabad, but he said weapons training was common in Afghanistan, and he had never heard of Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda.

Mr. Qassim and the four other men who would wind up in Albania were deemed not to have been enemy combatants. The 12 others in their group were classified as such.

“It’s a mystery as to why we were released and the others are still languishing behind bars,” he said. He said the United States had made a “mistake” in believing the Uighurs were radical Islamists opposed to the United States. Mr. Qassim said his people had always admired the United States and had hoped that one day America would rally to the Uighurs’ cause for freedom.

“We still believe the U.S. is a good country with good people,” he said. “But the government has made a mistake and is still making it.”

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