Chinese Detainees Are Men Without a Country

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that 15 Chinese Muslims detained at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released. Five were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for U.S. payoffs. The other 10 were deemed low-risk detainees whose enemy was China's communist government -- not the United States, according to senior U.S. officials.

More than 20 months later, the 15 still languish at Guantanamo Bay, imprisoned and sometimes shackled, with most of their families unaware whether they are even alive.

They are men without a country. The Bush administration has chosen not to send them home for fear China will imprison, persecute or torture them, as the United States charges has happened to other members of China's Muslim minority. But the State Department has also been unable to find another country to take them in, according to U.S. officials and recently filed court documents.

Other detainees cleared of terrorism charges have also languished for years at Guantanamo Bay, but all have been sent home or are in the process of being transferred. For the Chinese Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs ), there is no end in sight. About 20 countries -- including Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Turkey and a Latin American country -- have turned down U.S. overtures to give them asylum, according to U.S. officials.

The State Department says it is still working behind the scenes to find the Uighurs a home. A senior official called their situation "unfortunate."

This month, lawyers and human rights groups appealed to the United States to take in the stranded Uighurs. "It's not like these people were once considered to be a threat and now are not," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "These people need to be released, either in another country or the U.S. They're America's responsibility."

But the Bush administration has balked at allowing them to enter the United States, even under restricted supervision, or to appear in a court that is hearing two of the men's cases, according to U.S. officials and court documents.

In the meantime, the men are still treated as prisoners. Sabin P. Willett, a Boston lawyer who volunteered to take the cases of two Uighurs in March, finally met with them last month, after he and his team went through their own FBI clearances. One of the Uighurs was "chained to the floor" in a "box with no windows," Willett said in an Aug. 1 court hearing.

"You're not talking about your client?" asked Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court in Washington.

"I'm talking about my client," Willett said.

"He was chained to a floor?" Robertson asked again.

"He had a leg shackle that was chained to a bolt in the floor," Willett replied.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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