The Odyssey of Guantanamo Uighurs

Student Ambassador: Ellie Olsen

OWEd Ambassador Since: 2010

Grade 10

School Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, MD

Reflection Experience

Learning Activities

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

In 2002, President George W. Bush ordered the creation of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility to hold prisoners captured during the war on terror. Since that time, the word “Guantánamo” has come to symbolize the controversy surrounding U.S. policy toward the detention of prisoners. Officials in the United States, human rights organizations and international leaders have questioned the legality and the rationale for the continued existence of the facility. In 2009, President Obama ordered Guantánamo closed, and my father was selected to run the interagency task force charged with determining the status of all the detainees.

This is a story of loyalty and obligation. Two brothers born in western China were unlawfully detained by the United States in the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility for the past eight years. Because of their loyalty to one another, when one was finally released this past year, he refused to leave the prison until a home was found for his brother. For years, the United States has had the opportunity and moral obligation to correct this injustice, but from my perspective as a young person in this country, we did not do enough.

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim group living in western China. Their Islamic beliefs have subjected them to relentless religious persecution by the Chinese government. In 2001, twenty-one Uighurs, including Bahtiyar Mahnut, traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, where they stayed at an al Qaeda affiliated camp with the intention of rebelling against the Chinese government. One gun was found in the entire camp. Arkin Mahmud, Bahtiyar’s older brother, was worried about him so he traveled from China to Pakistan and started searching for his brother. In late 2001, U.S. troops bombed Afghanistan and rounded up suspected members of al Qaeda. Both brothers got caught up in the chaotic bombing and they were sent to a military prison in Kandahar, where they recognized each other across the razor wire. Assumed to be enemy combatants, Arkin, Bahtiyar, and the other twenty Uighurs were shipped to Guantánamo Bay, where they have been imprisoned for the past eight years.

The Uighurs were initially placed in Camp Delta, the maximum-security detention center. In late 2003, many Uighurs went before a federal judge who found that the government could not prove that they were enemy combatants. They posed and still pose no threat to United States. Even the Bush Administration acknowledged that they should not be at Guantánamo and released four to Albania for resettlement.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. On his first full day in office, President Obama signed an executive order requiring the closure of the Guantánamo prison within a year and set up a task force that reviews each detainee and decides their fate. In his speech in May of 2009, he said: “There is also no question that Guantánamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law.”

In 2009, the members of the task force including officials from the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and State Department, struggled to determine the fate of the remaining Uighurs in Guantánamo, including Bahtiyar and Arkin. They are not a threat to the United States and the courts have ordered their release. But where do they go? If they are sent back to China, they may be tortured and ultimately executed. No other country wants to take them because of pressure from the powerful Chinese government. Other nations have offered to take detainees from Guantánamo but expected to see the United States take detainees, too. A significant Uighur population lives in Northern Virginia that has been more than willing to accept the detainees and to help them find jobs and homes. So why won’t we accept the Uighurs into our country?

Despite President Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo, the possibility of resettling the Uighurs in the United States was halted. Frank Wolf, a congressman from Northern Virginia, led a successful campaign to stop the Uighurs from resettling here by inciting fear and preying on ignorance. He called the Uighurs members of an “Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, a designated terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda.” Even though this is true, it has been determined that the Uighurs are not terrorists; in fact they are searching for a life free of religious persecution. Despite the evidence, Congressman Wolf declared, “Let’s be clear: these terrorists would not be held in prisons but released into our neighborhoods. They should not be released at all into the United States.”

Still, over 2009, the Guantánamo Review Task Force began to make progress. The Uighurs previously had been moved to Camp Iguana, a lower security camp with video games and books, and some of the Uighurs have regained their freedom. In May of 2009, four were released to Bermuda and later in 2009 six were released to Palau. Palau, a small Pacific nation has offered to rehabilitate the six more Uighurs. This small island country of only 30,000 people has a cultural history of rescuing sailors lost at sea and giving them a home. They are honoring this cultural belief by rescuing the Uighurs who are without a home.

In the end, only one Uighur was not offered asylum anywhere: Arkin. Arkin suffers from mental illness, perhaps caused or worsened by the two years of solitary confinement he endured at Guantánamo. While Bahtiyar was offered asylum in Palau, his brother was rejected because of his mental illness. Bahtiyar vowed to stay with his brother, even if it meant staying as a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay.

As the head of the task force that has reviewed the case of each detainee, my father was involved in the controversy over whether Arkin and the other Uighurs should be resettled in the United States. I followed the odyssey of the Uighurs and watched it unfold. Since the beginning, I was struck by the story of the Uighurs, especially by the loyalty and love of Arkin and Bahtiyar. My father and I spent many dinners arguing over where to send the Uighurs and how to make men like Rep. Frank Wolf understand that they are people just like us, searching from freedom. After all, isn’t that what this country is all about? I always thought everyone would suddenly see it my way, and that Arkin and Bahtiyar would be living in Virginia. Arkin would get the help he needs and Bahtiyar would find a steady job in a community where he could practice his religion.

In this story of loyalty and obligation, I strongly believe that the United States should have accepted the Uighur brothers into our community. We would have shown the international community that we can take responsibility for our actions and that we will stop relying upon the generosity of other nations to fix our problems. Because of ignorance and fear, however, the two brothers will most likely go to Switzerland, and we will be absolved of our responsibility for the Uighurs. As a nation, we remain responsible for ensuring that an injustice such as that of Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility never occurs again.