Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Uighurs and the “Guantánamo Rorschach test”: refugees to some, plotters to others

Ilshat Hassan, a Uighur (or Uyghur) refugee from China, has offered to take one of the Guantánamo Uighurs into his McLean, Va., apartment.

An April 1, 2009 NY Times article featured Ilshat Hassan or his flight from China as a refuge. He is one of 300 exiles from western China’s Uighur Muslim minority now living in the Washington, D.C. area. The aticle highlights Mr. Hassan’s adjustment to American life. He is a former college professor, who has gainful employed with a consulting firm, and an apartment in the Virginia suburbs. Mr. Hassan and other exiles also enjoy the support of the US government in their pro-democracy activities.

The article highlights the life and adjustments to American life of Mr. Hassan, though not for so obvious reasons. The focus of the article and highlights of his life in America lead us down the road to a certain paradox. It is a paradox involving not only the life of Mr. Hassan, but that of a greater paradox; a paradox revealing contradicting policies of the US government. This is the paradox of a government assisting 300 exiles from western China’s Uighur Muslim minority, while, contra distinguishably, imprisoning 17 members of the Uighur Muslim minority in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Glaberson and Williams (2009) describes the paradox as follows:
As Mr. Hassan himself highlights the paradox, “Their story is my story, said Mr. Hassan, an edge in his voice.“ What Mr. Hassan escaped, in 2003, from what he characterized as a repressive government, the 17 Guantánamo Bay detainees endured about about 7 years of isolation and despair. He meant his account of escape in 2003 from a repressive Chinese government. Not the particulars, which, in the cases of the 17 Uighur detainees, have included seven years of isolation and despair.
Glaberson and Williams (2009) also described the paradox of the Uigurs as “something of a Guantánamo Rorschach test”. In other words, the Uigurs, depending on the viewpoint of the observer or even participants, are either hapless refugees to some, or dangerous plotters to others.

Then there is the paradox of the US government, the new administration of President Obama. This is because, as concerns the detainees from western China’s Uighur Muslim minority or the Guantánamo Uighur detainees, they now face “the task of determining which of those portraits is correct and whether the men can be released inside the United States has raised the stakes for the president’s plan to close the Guantánamo prison. Either choice is likely to provoke intense reaction” (Glaberson and Williams, 2009).

There are also the external forces serving only to exacerbate the paradox of the US government, in the closing of Guantánamo Bay detention camp. This is because the earlier announced plan of the Obama administration is contingent on other countries, more particularly, European allies, willing to accept some of the remaining 231 Guantánamo Bay detainees; a contingency that may determine the success of failure of an earlier plan to close the detention camp at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.

Notwithstanding contingency of European allies willing to house detainees, there are also the growing problems on the domestic front. In the United States, President Obama will face “a storm of protest from some quarters if he admits detainees the Bush Administration labeled terrorists and barred from this country. Already, word of the men’s possible release has brought denunciations and anxiety from military groups, families of Sept. 11 victims and political figures” Glaberson and Williams (2009).

On January 13, 2009, Benjamin Wittes joined experts in a New York Times running commentary to discuss the challenges the new administration will face in closing the Guantánamo Bay detention camp (Wittes, 2009). Wittes (2009) outlined the problems associated with closing Guantánamo, in his article “The Challenges of Closing Guantánamo.”

For instance, according to Wittes (2009):
The hardest single question in closing Guantánamo is what to do with those detainees whom the government believes in good faith to be too dangerous to set free yet who could not plausibly face trial before any tribunal of which America could stand proud. Today’s Times reports that the Obama transition “appear[s] to have rejected a proposal to seek a new law authorizing indefinite detention inside the United States.” . . .

If Obama has ruled out a new detention law, he has only three options for handling the group of hard core detainees. He can the let them go and try to manage the risk they pose by means other than detention. He can keep holding them under current detention authorities, rooted in the laws of war. If he pursues this second course, then the closure of Guantánamo will be something a sham. Guantánamo will have moved and shrunk, but the policy will not really have changed much. The third possibility is to transfer lots more detainees to the custody of other countries, which might do anything from freeing them to torturing them. None of these options should be attractive to the new president.

That’s why a new detention law warrants a second look. The war on terror is a hybrid conflict with attributes of both warfare and criminal justice but all of the hallmarks of neither. . .

Unless Mr. Obama is willing to take on significant new risk, not having such an administrative detention law would not mean ending extra-criminal detention. The United States and its partners will continue to act to neutralize terrorism threats. Without new legal tools, in all likelihood that means there will still be some combination of detentions abroad, under less protective law-of-war standards, detentions by proxy governments, and targeted killing. These possible outcomes would present a dubious accomplishment for human rights (Wittes, 2009).
There is also the empirical study of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp by Benjamin Wittes and Zaahira Wyne, which is their “The Current Detainee Population of Guantánamo: An Empirical Study”. In the introduction to their study, Wittes and Wyne (2008) wrote:
The following report represents an effort both to document and to describe in as much detail as the public record will permit the current detainee population in American military custody at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. Since the military brought the first detainees to Guantánamo in January 2002, the Pentagon has consistently refused to comprehensively identify those it holds. While it has, at various times, released information about individuals who have been detained at Guantánamo, it has always maintained ambiguity about the population of the facility at any given moment, declining even to specify precisely the number of detainees held at the base. In its most recent statements, for example, the military refers to the Guantánamo population as numbering “approximately 250.” When the government repatriates detainees, it generally identifies the number of detainees transferred, but not their names.

The result is that despite a debate that has raged over American detention policy almost since the outset of the war on terrorism, the actual detainee population which the debate concerns remains strangely obscure. The current population numbers less than a third of the total number of detainees who have passed through the facility since 2002. And the composition of the population has changed markedly as it has declined. Yet precisely how it has changed remains fuzzy. Which detainees are still there and which have been sent home?
What allegations does the military make against the residual population and how serious are they? How have the detainees responded to these allegations? Are they, as the Bush administration has described the Guantánamo population, the “worst of the worst”? Or are they composed, as the New York Times once put it, of “hundreds of innocent men . . . jailed at Guantánamo without charges or rudimentary rights”? Or do they, perhaps, vary? Much commentary on the merits of the American detention policy relates to a detainee population composed chiefly of people no longer at the base, as do a number of frequently-cited academic studies (internal citations omitted) (Wittes and Wyne, 2008).
As administrative officials under the new Obama administration reportedly have initiated the process of interviewing detainees and determining their suitability for release, the empirical study of Wittes and Wyne (2008) highlights the inherent problems that associate with this task. The crisis, simply put, is that, “The public record, including intelligence and other materials from court cases and military hearings, often presents a hazy picture” (Glaberson and Williams, 2009); an observation earlier substantiated by the empirical study of Wittes and Wyne (2008). Moreover, “The evidence against them has been declared dubious by federal courts. But former Bush administration officials said in interviews that there had been no serious effort to clear up the mysteries” (Glaberson and Williams, 2009).

All of this focused attention on Mr. Hassan and his assumed role. “Mr. Hassan and other refugees argue it is clear the men pose no danger. They have offered to take in the men should they be released. Freeing the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) would be a singular moment in the debate over the Guantánamo prison: critics would see a final judgment that innocent men were locked away there” (Glaberson and Williams, 2009).

While “The Bush administration conceded last fall that none of the men were enemy combatants” and the then “Justice Department argued that they should never be admitted into this country because they “sought to wage terror” in China, "the State Department has acknowledged that the Chinese used the terrorist listing to justify a harsh crackdown on Uighur separatists, much like the Beijing government’s better-known policies toward Tibet” (Glaberson and Williams, 2009).

Mr. Hassan, the exile who once taught at a technical college in Xinjiang, said he fled his country after a failed plan to kill him. . . . Mr. Hassan, though, seemed at ease. He was grateful, he said, to the countless people who helped him get here. So he signed up when he heard some months ago that detainees’ lawyers wanted to present a relocation plan in court. More than a dozen Uighurs here offered shelter to any of their countrymen who might win freedom from Guantánamo. Mr. Hassan said he and the 17 detainees had a lot in common. “We have the same goal for freedom from Chinese rule,” he said. “They sacrificed for our cause” (Glaberson and Williams, 2009).

Moreover, while there is not a US policy concerning western China’s Uighur Muslim minority per se, there is the Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. In this report, China is annually recommended for CPC designation, as one of several countries designated as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) by the Department of State (Killion, 2006). The US government employs the designation of CPCs for monitoring ongoing violations of human rights and egregious violations of religious freedom.
In addition to CPC designations, there is a Watch List for countries not rising to statutory level for CPC, but still requiring close monitoring. The result of a CPC designation is focused diplomatic activity as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 (ITFA). The Commission, pursuant to the IRFA, issues recommended responses for the President, Secretary of State and Congress.

In the 2005 Annual Report, the Commission found that government in China continues to be responsible for “pervasive and severe violations of religious freedom and related human rights,” and further “every religious community in China is subject to restrictions, discrimination, and state control.” The most serious violations of religious freedom are “experienced by Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Roman Catholics, house churches and unregistered Protestants, and spiritual groups such as the Falun Gong, abuses involving imprisonment, torture, and other forms of ill treatment (Killion, 2006).
The Commission, admittedly, did earlier note that in March of 2005, China issued a new ordinance on religion.
However, China’s new religion law did not offer any protections to religious freedom, rather provided the CCP with a greater degree of control over all religious groups and activities. The consensus of legal and human rights experts is that the regulations were not issued to protect the rights of religious believers. These experts agree that the new regulations are only designed to regularize management practices, and therefore, merely, offering Party leaders more extensive control over all religious activity and groups. The new regulations also contain provisions threatening criminal punishments and civil fines for groups engaging in religious activities without first registering with official “patriotic” religious organizations (Killion, 2006).
In the end, while the Obama administration faces the paradox of the Guantánamo Rorschach test and ultimate determination of which detainees are rightly classifiable as refugees and plotters, the China government may perhaps need to come to the realization that it should also be addressing a similar Guantánamo Rorschach test. For China’s government, this is a Rorschach test intended to determine whether members of western China’s Uighur Muslim minority are rightly classifiable as citizens or plotters.


William Glaberson and Margot Williams, Chinese Inmates at Guantánamo Pose a Dilemma, NY Times, April 1, 2009.

Benjamin Wittes, “The Challenges of Closing Guantánamo,” Brookings Institution, January 13, 2009.

Benjamin Wittes and Zaahira Wyne, “The Current Detainee Population of Guantánamo: An Empirical Study”, Brookings Institution, December 16, 2008 (updates, as of March 31, 2009, are available at the Brookings Institutions website).

Ulric Killion, Modern Chinese Journey to the West: Economic Globalization and Dualism, 2006.

International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, 22 U.S.C. 6401 et. seq., P.L. 105-292, as amended by P.L. 106-55 and P.L. 107-228.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Copyright © Protected - All Rights Reserved M. Ulric Killion, 2009.

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