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Guantánamo's Prisoners of Cowardice

The release of 17 Uighurs into the US is a long overdue correction to the Bush administration's mistaken terrorism policy

Ken Gude

Tuesday's ruling by a US district court judge in Washington ordering 17 Uighurs released into the US brings us one step closer to righting one of the most egregious wrongs in the catalogue of injustices at Guantánamo.

The right thing to do about the Guantánamo Uighurs has been staring the Bush administration in the face for years, but they lacked the courage to do it on their own. They knew very quickly that these men posed no threat to the US, but that they could not be sent back to China, and no country was willing to risk relations with Beijing to solve America's problem. The only viable option was to resettle them in the US, but the Bush administration refused, perhaps hoping to run out the clock and leave this problem for the next administration. So the Uighurs languished at Guantánamo until Tuesday, no longer enemy combatants, just prisoners of cowardice.

The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority group residing in western China that has at times resisted the control of the Chinese communist party in Beijing. The Chinese government has a history of persecuting Uighurs, and many have fled across the border to camps in Afghanistan. Some of them then had to flee again after the US invasion in October 2001 and ended up in Pakistan, where they were taken in by bounty hunters and turned over to US forces, ultimately arriving at Guantánamo in June 2002.

At Guantánamo, after Chinese officials interrogated the Uighurs, the Bush administration alleged the Afghan camp at which they were living was run by a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was further alleged to be associated with al-Qaida. Each of the Uighurs adamantly denies any connection to ETIM, and while some admit that they wanted to return to their homeland to defend their fellow Uighurs against the "Chinese occupiers", as they describe them, most appeared to be in the camp waiting for the chance to travel further west, hoping for political asylum in Turkey or Iran. US courts have repeatedly held that even if the connection to ETIM was absolutely true, it would not be sufficient grounds to detain the Uighurs.

So the case of the Uighurs is simultaneously simple and complex. Simple because all sides agree that they are not enemies of the US. Complex because all sides agree that the Chinese government views them as enemies. The Bush administration cleared some of the Uighurs for release as long ago as 2003. The Chinese have demanded their return, but international and domestic law prohibits the Bush administration from sending them to a fate of torture or worse. Albania accepted five of the Guantánamo Uighurs in 2006, but as Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure on it and other countries, no other nation has agreed to accept any Uighurs out of fear of repercussions in their relations with China.

The obvious solution was to bring them into the US, but the Bush administration clung to the flimsy excuse that it could not allow immigrants into the US with connections to terrorist organisations, despite however tenuous the connection to ETIM. The real reason for the Bush administration's reticence is clear: they too were afraid of the wrath of China and perhaps conservative ideologues unwilling to accept that mistakes were made at Guantánamo. And so the Uighurs sat at Guantánamo, until now.

US district judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the 17 remaining Guantánamo Uighurs brought to his courtroom on Friday and released into the Washington-area Uighur community, but an appeals court granted a temporary stay of the decision until October 16. The stay is a setback for the Uighurs, but the US government is unlikely to prevail on appeal, because Urbinia's decision really was the only one possible. These men are not enemy combatants, meaning the government has no grounds to detain them, and years of failed efforts to find another home meant the only realistic possibility for timely release was in the US. Urbina warned the government against its threatened action to re-arrest the Uighurs on immigration charges upon their eventual release. Hopefully, someone in the Bush administration has an ounce of decency left and the sense to avoid a tragic replay of this sorry episode of indefinite detention and injustice.

Urbina's decision continues the trajectory of Guantánamo toward inevitable closure. Waiting until it is forced to release the Uighurs merely underscores the Bush administration's lack of courage to make the difficult questions necessary to close the prison. The greatest tragedy in this saga is that it was this cowardice that cost the Uighurs years of their lives.

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Ken Gude is the associate director of the international rights and responsibility programme at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington DC.

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