Freed from Guantánamo, but stuck in limbo

October 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
After 9/11, six ethnic Chinese men known as Uighurs were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They spent eight years in prison before being cleared of any wrongdoing by U.S. courts, and now find themselves stranded in a legal and political limbo on the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On their first few days on the Pacific Island-nation of Palau, these men easily could have passed for tourists – just like the thousands of other vacationers who come here to scuba dive on some of the world’s best coral reefs.

But their stay here didn’t last days or weeks. And it’s hardly been a vacation. These men have now been stranded here — four years- cut off from friends and most family.

Caught up, they believe, in the fog of war and the U.S. war on terror.

AHMAD TOURSON: What do you feel? You don’t have enough money, you don’t have passport, you don’t have home. What do you feel?

Ahmad Tourson and his friends are part of an ethnic Muslim group from Xinxang in western China known as Uighurs. In part because of longstanding disputes with the central Chinese government, thousands of Uighurs have fled that country.

J. WELLS DIXON: They were feeling persecution in various forms in China.

J. Wells Dixon is a lawyer representing several of the Uighurs in Palau.

J. WELLS DIXON: And so they would walk across the border into Kyrgyzstan. And they would hear by word of mouth about these Uighur communities in the mountains of Afghanistan. And so they sort of made their way– to these communities– they sort of trickled in over time.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This was all before 9/11.

J. WELLS DIXON: Before 9/11 and– before the U.S. invasion.

Once in Afghanistan, some of the Uighurs lived in areas that were under control of the Taliban.

When the U. S. invaded the country in retaliation for 9/11, U.S. ground forces captured thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the very area where the Uighurs lived.

Several dozen Uighurs were also taken into custody – held as suspected terrorists. (the U.S. government later claimed some had been undergoing military training.)

J. WELLS DIXON: Well, the men were picked up in the fog of war. They were rounded up and sold to the United States for money – for bounties – for $5,000 apiece.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Was it appropriate to capture them? I think the answer to that is that it was certainly appropriate to capture them.

Benjamin Wittes is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He also serves on the task force on national security and law at the Hoover Institution.

BENJAMIN WITTES: So the initial capture of the Uighurs, if you consider it from a U.S. military point of view, makes all the sense in the world. These are people who came to Afghanistan to take training, and who are in the Tora Bora region, and fleeing across the Pakistani border in– that at the same time that lots of foreign fighters of exactly the sort that the United States is most worried about are.

While Wittes is a strong defender of the right to capture and detain potential terror suspects, he thinks the Uighurs were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

BENJAMIN WITTES: These are actually not people who have a problem with the United States. These are people who have a problem with the government of China and whose marriage of convenience with the Taliban is really just a convenience thing. It’s not part of any global jihad.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Did the U.S. have any evidence that that these men had any planning or training to attack the United States?

J. WELLS DIXON: Absolutely not. There has never been an allegation that the Uighurs bore any ill will toward the United States. In fact, when the Uighurs were turned over to the United States, they thought that they had been saved. They were soon to find that out– that that would not be their fate.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nearly two dozen Uighurs were sent to the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, where they were held for seven years.

In 2008, several U.S. federal judges declared the evidence against the men was based on unverifiable claims, and ruled they could no longer be classified as enemy combatants. They were ordered set free — but then Congress passed, and President Obama signed a law that blocked any Guantánamo prisoners from coming to the U.S. Abdulghappar Abdul-Rahman, another of the Uighurs who ended up in Palau, described a growing frustration inside Guantánamo at the time.

ABDULGHAPPAR ABDUL-RAHMAN: In 2008, United States Appeals Court ordered that we are innocent and we should be brought to the United States. Even after that, we, the six of us who came to Palau, continued to stay there another year, although we are innocent.

BENJAMIN WITTES: The Chinese government makes clear that, a), it wants them back. You have no confidence that they will not abuse them. In fact, you suspect they will. They do not want to go back to China, which they could have done by the way. But very understandably have no interest in going back to China to tortured or executed. What happens then?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The State Department, which declined to comment for this report, was reportedly unwilling to send the men back to China and had been trying for several years to find nations that would take in the Uighurs… And it finally had some success… all but three Uighurs were found new homes. Some were sent to Albania, El Salvador, Bermuda and Switzerland… in October of 2009, six were sent around the world to Palau.

Palau is a tiny Pacific Island nation of just 20,000 residents. As a former U.S. territory, the country has had strong military and financial ties to the U.S. for years.

The Uighurs arrival here was supposed to be a fresh start, but the front page of the main Palauan newspaper reported their arrival like this: “… a plane arrived at the wee hours at an airport in darkness without knowledge of the sleeping country, and emerged six bearded Moslem terrorists in shackles and guarded by many fully armed commandos.”

The men told us that first impression has been very hard to shake.

AHMAD TOURSON: They show us, the newspapers show us – the others like terrorists. They think, oh six terrorists came here – bad. When they saw us, very angry, some of them ask ‘why you are here?’

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Uighurs say they mostly stick to themselves. Over the years – as what was supposed to be just a temporary stay in Palau has stretched on year after year, their lawyers, along with the Palaun government, have worked hard to bring some of their family members to join them.

Ahmad Tourson – who says he went to college back in China — was given a job working the night shift as a security guard at the local power plant. Several of the other Uighurs got similar menial jobs, like working at gas stations.

AHMAD TOURSON: We cannot provide our families. These are hard times.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There are virtually no other Muslims in Palau — it’s a majority Christian country. While the Uighurs say they’re grateful to the Palauan government, they’re hoping to be re-settled in another country – like Australia – where there’s a thriving Uighur population.

For now though, they’re stranded in limbo. While free in Palau, they have no passports or travel documents and thus can’t leave.

BENJAMIN WITTES: The principal reason the situation developed, is that the United States was committed not to returning these people to China, despite repeated Chinese requests for them. And that was a reflection of a values decision. And so in some sense, the whole problem developed in part because the United States was not willing to see these people harmed or tortured

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some of our viewers might look at the idea of being stranded in Palau — which to many people is an island paradise — as not the worst place in the world to be stuck for a few years.

J. WELLS DIXON: Palau is certainly not the worst place in the world to be stuck– for anyone– including the Uighurs. You know, for the Uighurs, being in China would be the worst place in the world. And they’re very, very grateful for that. But they can’t breathe that final sigh of relief because they don’t know where they’re ultimately going to end up. And that takes a tremendous psychological toll on them.

AHMAD TOURSON: Yeah, we think, on the first time, the first day, the few months, we think, we are restored, this is our vacation, everything beautiful, and the swimming, and the view, and the weather, but after years? What do we think? Homeless, stateless, moneyless, everything.