By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
Attorneys for a group of Chinese Muslims held for nearly five years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, filed suit yesterday, asking that the men be released immediately and alleging that they have been held as part of a political deal between the United States and China.
Citing new laws that allow detainees to challenge their status as "enemy combatants," the lawyers argue that their seven clients -- ethnic Uighurs (pronounced wee-gurs) -- have never taken up arms against the United States or its allies. They contend that the men have been labeled wrongfully as terrorist suspects because they oppose the Communist Chinese government.
In a 58-page filing at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the lawyers argue that the Uighurs have been held since early 2002 as a way to win Chinese acquiescence for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The lawyers -- Sabin Willett and Susan Baker Manning -- allege in the court documents that their clients' detention was one of several demands the Chinese government solicited in mid-2002 as the United States was seeking global support for toppling Saddam Hussein.
U.S. officials labeled the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- a group that includes Uighur separatists who want their own nation in western China -- a terrorist organization in August 2002 after diplomatic discussions with China about Iraq, the lawyers allege.
"In the crisis atmosphere of the time, the interests of a few dozen refugees paled beside the urgency of the Administration's war plans," the lawsuit said. "The Iraq deal sealed the fate of the seven petitioners here. More than four years have passed. Long-discarded pawns in a diplomatic match between superpowers, petitioners today remain illegally imprisoned at Guantanamo."
Former State Department officials acknowledged in interviews that they negotiated with China about placing ETIM and another group on a list of known terrorist organizations, and that ETIM was added after intelligence reports indicated the group had killed innocent people. The officials said, however, that labeling the group as terrorists had no effect on Uighurs already in U.S. custody, who were believed to be cooperating with the Taliban and al-Qaeda near Tora Bora, Afghanistan.
Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage met with Chinese officials in Beijing in late August 2002 and discussed the Iraq situation with them. He said at the time that ETIM was placed on the foreign terrorist list after months of discussions with China. He also said he made clear that China needed to respect the minority Uighur population.
"They had been after us to put ETIM on the list," Armitage said in a recent interview. He said the decision did not have anything to do with winning China's tacit approval on the Iraq invasion. "But at the time, we didn't know when we were going to invade Iraq. It was done in response to information gathered by the intelligence group."
The Uighurs have been a diplomatic headache for the United States. U.S. officials working to negotiate the release of five other Uighurs held at Guantanamo who were determined not to be a threat to U.S. interests refused to return them to China out of concern they could be tortured or killed. More than two dozen countries declined requests to take them in, and the United States has been unwilling to allow them to come here.
Earlier this year, those five Uighurs were released to a U.N. compound in Albania, where they remain virtual prisoners.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, who formerly led U.S. negotiations with other countries over Guantanamo detainees, said that China wanted custody of the Uighurs but that the United States staved off Beijing because of human rights concerns. "We tried for many months to reach an understanding with China regarding the fate of the Uighurs and were unable to do so," he said.
More than a dozen Uighurs are still in Guantanamo. U.S. officials have determined them to be enemy combatants because of their participation in an alleged terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, which all fled when the United States started bombing the area after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Uighurs have told military court officials they were not allied with the Taliban and are sympathetic to the United States, which they view as a liberator. They said they were living in a small community in Afghanistan after fleeing oppression in China.
According to military tribunal records and court filings, the men were lured to a mosque in Pakistan, where they were arrested and later turned over to Pakistani authorities. Willett said he believes the men were sold to the United States for sizable bounties and were sent to Guantanamo along with many other detainees captured there.
The lawyers challenge the way the Uighurs were determined to be enemy combatants, arguing that their encampment in Afghanistan did not make them a party to hostilities. The Uighurs have said the United States allowed a Chinese delegation to visit and interrogate them after their capture, and that the Chinese threatened them. A U.S. official confirmed that the Chinese were allowed to question the Uighurs.
"It is amazing to me that the U.S. has agreed to, in effect, hold political prisoners for China in exchange for anything," Manning said. "That goes against everything that we, I thought, stood for in this country."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.