Uighurs Still Held at Guantanamo Despite Being Cleared of ‘Enemy Combatant’ Status
(Washington, DC, October 6, 2008) – A group of Chinese Uighurs who have been cleared of the “enemy combatant” designation should be freed from Guantanamo and given parole status in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. Their case will be heard by a federal judge in the District of Columbia on Tuesday, October 7.
There are currently 17 Uighurs in Guantanamo – most of whom were turned over from Pakistan to the United States for bounties in late 2001. The US government cleared these detainees for release by 2004, but they were not returned to China due to credible fears that they would be tortured upon return. For several years, the US government has tried to convince other countries to resettle the Uighurs. In 2006, Albania agreed to take in five of them, but no other country has offered to do so, in part because of US unwillingness to accept any released Guantanamo detainees itself.
“The Uighur detainees have been held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years, even though the government acknowledges they should be freed,” said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Since Washington has failed to resettle the Uighurs elsewhere, it should parole them into the United States.”
There is general agreement as to the circumstances of the arrest of most of the Guantanamo Uighurs. They were living together in a Uighur camp in Afghanistan and when the US-led coalition bombing campaign began in October 2001, a group of them fled into the mountains. Arab travelers promised to take them to a safe house in Pakistan, but instead turned them over to Pakistani authorities who, in turn, handed them over to the United States – reportedly for large bounties. They have been in US custody ever since.
The United States has claimed that the Uighur detainees are associated with the East Turkmenistan Islamist Movement, which the Bush administration designated a terrorist organization in August 2002. The Uighurs have denied these associations, and assert that any such association is irrelevant since the group was not declared a terrorist organization until well after they were taken into captivity.
In June 2008, a US federal appeals court ruled that one of these detainees, Hazaifa Parhat, had been improperly classified as an “enemy combatant,” and ordered the government to either reassess his status, release him, or transfer him out of Guantanamo. In response, the government declared that Parhat – as well as the other 16 Uighur detainees – were “no longer enemy combatants,” but maintains that it can continue to hold them in Guantanamo unless and until another country is willing to accept them. The US Justice Department argues that US courts do not have the power to order the executive to transfer the Uighurs to the United States.
“If the court can determine someone is unlawfully being detained, it must also have the power to order release,” said Daskal. “The Bush administration wants to turn the courts handling Guantanamo cases into mere advisory bodies, which it can ignore at will.”
The Uighurs are requesting that they be granted temporary parole into the United States pending a final determination of their habeas petition, through which they are challenging the legality of their detention in federal court. If their parole request is granted, they would be likely be subject to travel restrictions and monitoring by the civilian court system.