After Guantanamo, An Empty Freedom
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
TIRANA, Albania -- For 16 months, they have shared a clutch of tidy rooms in a small refugee camp in this city, living alongside a few dozen others whose lives were unraveled by war or persecution or both.
But apart from their new home, the five men from the Uighur ethnic group of western China, whose most recent address was the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have little in common with the camp's other residents, most of whom come from one of Albania's neighbors and blend easily into the crowd on Tirana's busy streets.
The Uighurs, all Muslims, said in recent interviews that for a while they embraced their new life in Albania. A majority-Muslim country, it was the only one willing to accept them when U.S. officials ruled that, after three years of incarceration, they posed no security risk.
But the desire to start new lives here has been thwarted by what they described as a string of broken promises. They say they are unable to work or reunite with family members, whom they haven't seen since before they were seized in 2001.
"We have requested an independent life here, to bring our families here, to be trained and have some work to do, to live in our own apartments," said Abu Qadder Basim, who at 38 is the oldest of the five. "Obviously you can't compare this life to Guantanamo, which is a prison."
He spoke in his spartan room, adorned only with a wall calendar, a few worn Korans, a small fan and a paperback copy of "Albanian for Foreigners."
"But even after we were released and they said we did nothing wrong," he said, "we have no hope for the future."
The five men all deny involvement with the Taliban, the extremist group that ruled most of Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They variously say they went to Afghanistan to escape Chinese oppression or in hopes of going on to third countries where they could improve their livelihoods. China regards them as terrorists involved in a fight against Chinese authority at home.
According to Jason Pinney, an attorney for some of the men, they were scooped up by bounty hunters in Pakistan in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, then sold to U.S. forces for $5,000 a head. Later they were sent to Guantanamo Bay.
The five were initially classified as "enemy combatants," but after being evaluated by a military body called a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, that status was revoked, making them eligible for release. As with more than 100 other inmates, that was contingent on a suitable country being found to receive them.
Because their native China considers them outlaws and has a spotty human rights record, U.S. officials began shopping around.
Unaware this was going on, the Uighurs' attorneys filed a habeas corpus petition in U.S. federal court, which could have brought their release. But on the Friday before the Monday on which an appeal was to be heard, the lawyers got a message from the court. The proceedings were deemed moot because the men had been transferred. To Albania.