Chinese Leave Guantánamo for Albanian Limbo
TIRANA, Albania - Ahktar Qassim Basit says he is not angry about the four years he spent as an American prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before his captors mumbled a brief apology and flew him to this drab Balkan capital to begin a new life as a refugee.
It is this new life in Albania, Mr. Basit and other former Guantánamo detainees say, that is driving them to desperation.
The men, Muslims from western China's Uighur ethnic minority, were freed from their confinement in Cuba after they were found to pose no threat to the United States. They have now lived for more than a year in a squalid government refugee center on the grubby outskirts of Tirana, guarded by armed policemen.
The men have been told that they will need to get work to move out of the center, they said, but that they must learn the Albanian language to get work permits. For now, they subsist on free meals heavy with macaroni and rice, and monthly stipends of about $67, which they spend mostly on brief telephone calls to their families. But some of the men have already lost hope of ever seeing their wives and children again.
"We suffered very much at Guantánamo, but we continue to suffer here," Mr. Basit said. "The other prisoners had their countries, but we are like orphans: we have no place to go."
Mr. Basit and four other men here, who spent time at a hamlet in Afghanistan run by Uighur separatists, are still considered terrorist suspects by China's Communist government. Only Albania's pro-American government would give them asylum, but Albanian officials have since told the men they cannot afford to give them much else.
Things could be worse, the former prisoners note. At least 15 of the 17 Uighurs who remain at Guantánamo have also been cleared for release, but not even Albania will accept them - and neither will the United States. Instead, American diplomats say they have asked nearly 100 countries to provide asylum to the detainees, only to find that Chinese officials have warned some of the same countries not to accept them.
"The United States has made extensive and high-level efforts over a period of four years to try to resettle the Uighurs in countries around the world," the State Department's legal adviser, John B. Bellinger III, said in an interview. Its lack of success, he added, "has not been for lack of trying."
Many American officials privately describe the Uighurs' plight as one of the more troubling episodes of the Bush administration's detention program. The case also provides a view of the remarkable difficulties Washington has encountered in trying to winnow the detainee population at Guantánamo in response to domestic and international criticism.
The refugees in Tirana seem to have little sense of how to influence the global chess game in which they have become involved. They spend most of their days behind the refugee center's high, cinderblock walls, reading the Koran, studying Albanian and waiting for a turn on the center's lone desktop computer. They avoid the gravelly soccer field because it reminds them of one they looked out on at Guantánamo.
With President Bush scheduled to visit Albania on Sunday, the Uighurs and three other former Guantánamo detainees here are also asking whether the United States, having flown them here in shackles, might do anything to help get them the housing, jobs and other support they have been told to expect.
One morning in mid-May, the five Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) got permission to leave the refugee center, rode buses downtown and trooped to the offices of the Albanian prime minister, Sali Berisha. An aide said Mr. Berisha was too busy to see them, but promised to pass along their entreaties.
"We said, if you can't deliver what you have promised, please ask George W. Bush to find another country for us," another of the former prisoners, Abu Bakker Qassim, recalled.
Officials of the Albanian Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the refugees, declined to comment on their treatment.
The 22 Uighurs who ended up at Guantánamo were part of a group of about three dozen Uighur men who were staying at a hamlet in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, not far from Tora Bora, when United States forces began bombing the area in October 2001.
Most of the five Uighurs in Tirana said they had left their homes in China's far-western Xinjiang Province, an area the Uighurs call East Turkestan, to earn more money for their families and escape government harassment. They said they drifted into Afghanistan after travels through other Central Asian countries, and heard that the Uighur hamlet was a place where they could get free food and shelter while trying to figure out where to go next.
The youngest, Ayoub Haji Mamet, who was 18 when he was captured, had a quixotic plan to make his way across Europe and then fly to the United States to attend school.
International human rights groups have long accused the Chinese authorities of oppressing the roughly nine million Uighurs in Xinjiang, where there have been occasional acts of separatist violence. The State Department's own 2006 human rights report for China describes ethnic discrimination, the suppression of Muslim religious freedom and the persecution of those thought to be separatists, many of whom have been executed.
Pentagon officials have described the Uighur hamlet in Afghanistan as a separatist training camp that was at least loosely aligned with the Taliban. Lawyers for the men dispute that characterization. But in interviews, the Uighurs in Albania described a tiny, primitive outpost run by secretive members of some sort of Uighur liberation group.
The men who arrived there were given chores to do and beans to eat. Most of them were assigned aliases and shown how to fire an old AK-47 assault rifle, the only weapon they saw. One American intelligence official said that some of the Uighurs still at Guantánamo received more extensive training. The leader of the hamlet, a man called Abdul Musin, told visitors that they could stay on if they wanted to "liberate" other Uighurs, the men said, but that they were also free to go.
"We do not know if he belonged to any group," said Mr. Qassim, 38, the oldest of the five detainees. "We were not allowed to ask any questions."
In mid-October of 2001, American planes bombed the Uighur hamlet, killing at least one man and sending the rest fleeing over the mountains into Pakistan. Villagers there sheltered and fed the Uighurs but then betrayed them to local security forces, which turned them over to the United States military.
By June 2002, nearly all the Uighurs had been sent from military detention centers in Afghanistan to Guantánamo. They described their imprisonment as bewildering and traumatic, punctuated by moments of the absurd. After they were cleared for release, they were able to watch cartoons and Harry Potter movies, until Mr. Mamet smashed the television because of what he said was the guards' refusal to take him to a doctor. The set was replaced with one made in China, the men said dismissively; it broke after a week.
Several of the Uighurs said their most traumatic experience at Guantánamo was their interrogation by a team of Chinese security officials in September 2002. The Chinese "had all of our files from the Americans," Mr. Qassim said, threatened them repeatedly and insisted that the prisoners return with them to China. They refused.
But American intelligence personnel at Guantánamo soon began to doubt that most of the Uighurs represented a real terrorist threat, officials who served there said. By late 2003, senior national security officials in Washington cleared most of the Uighurs for release - 14, by one official's count.
Some officials at the Pentagon advocated sending the Uighurs back to China, and the State Department eventually sought and received assurances from the Chinese that they would treat the men humanely. But senior officials finally decided not to repatriate them, citing China's past treatment of the Uighur minority.
The State Department began approaching both Muslim countries like Turkey and those with small Uighur communities, like Germany and Sweden. However, the search was interrupted in September 2004, when the Pentagon set up panels at Guantánamo to decide whether the prisoners there, including the 22 Uighurs, were being rightfully held. Although most of the Uighurs had already been cleared for release, the review panels found that all but six were in fact enemy combatants.
The boards were told to review the Uighur cases again, officials said. This time, they found that only five could be freed. (Subsequent annual reviews have cleared 15 of the 17 remaining detainees.)
The State Department then began casting its net more widely. One prospect was the west African republic of Gabon, which has a small Muslim minority. Gabon's long-ruling president, Omar Bongo, said he was open to accepting the Uighurs. But according to two officials, he wanted not only compensation for resettling the refugees, but support for international loans to his government and a meeting with President Bush at the White House. He had already had one such meeting just months earlier, on May 26, 2004.
American diplomats said they had contacted governments from Angola to Switzerland to Australia. Increasingly, though, they have seen the shadows of their Chinese counterparts.
"The Chinese keep coming in behind us and scaring different countries with whom they have financial or trade relationships," said one administration official, who insisted on anonymity in discussing diplomatic issues.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said her government would not discuss its specific diplomatic efforts regarding the Uighurs. But in a statement, the embassy described the Uighurs at Guantánamo as "suspects of the 'East Turkestan' terrorist forces which constitute part of international terrorist forces," and it said they should face justice in China.
Beijing's ambassador to Albania has met at least three times with Mr. Berisha, the prime minister, to demand the Uighurs' repatriation, Albanian officials said. Albania has since told Washington it cannot accept any more of the Uighur detainees.
"But we helped as much as we could," the Albanian foreign minister, Lulzim Basha, said in an interview.
American officials said China has also been active in Germany, which has heard appeals about the Uighurs from high-level White House and State Department officials, as well as international human rights groups.
"One of the problems we've encountered is that they say, why doesn't the U.S. take some of these people?" said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who has lobbied European governments to accept some of the Uighurs and other Guantánamo detainees.
American officials said they considered that idea. But two officials said it was shot down in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security, which argued that the men would be barred from entering the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act because they had been linked to a terrorist group or received "military-type training" from a group that engaged in terrorism.
Although American officials said they had compensated the Albanian government generously for taking the refugee, American diplomats in Tirana have paid little attention to the fate of the five Uighurs and the three other former Guantánamo detainees here, an Egyptian, an Algerian and an Uzbek.
"We've never talked to them," said an American official who insisted on anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter. "We don't monitor them. They're not our citizens, and there is no reason for us to." The official attributed the shortcomings of the Albanian resettlement effort to "routine bureaucratic problems."
The Tirana representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has helped to organize and finance the refugee program in Albania, sounded more frustrated with the slow pace of resettlement.
"The government of Albania agreed to provide asylum to these people," the official, Hossein Kheradmand, said. "We are not talking about 5,000 or 6,000 people; we are talking about eight people."
The detainees have tried to fend for themselves. Mr. Mamet, the only one of the Uighurs who is single, found a young Albanian Muslim woman to marry but the arrangement collapsed when he could not move out of the refugee center. The others seem torn between longing for their families, who may never be able to leave China, and hope that they might someday start over.
After what they said had been endless promises of help from Albanian officials, they asked late last year to be moved to another country. They were told that because they were in a "safe" country, the United Nations could not relocate them. And anyway, no other country would have them. Lately, they have considered a hunger strike, a protest method they sometimes used in Cuba.
"After four and a half years, we thought we had escaped from Guantánamo, but we are still living under that shadow," Mr. Qassim said. "Sometimes we think it would be better to go die in our homeland than to stay here."
Raymond Bonner contributed reporting from Washington.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company