By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
When U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina was looking for a place in the United States to send 17 Chinese Muslim detainees he wants released from Guantanamo Bay, the Washington area was an obvious choice. The region is home to the country's largest concentration of refugees from the men's ethnic group, known as Uighurs, and members have promised to help resettle the prisoners.
"Our community said: 'We are here to help. Release them into our custody,' " said Nury Turkel, a Washington aviation lawyer and past president of the Uyghur American Association, a District-based human rights group that uses another spelling of the ethnic group's name. "We have people offering them places to stay, English training, employment. We don't want anyone to think they will be a burden on society."
Urbina has ordered the men, who have been held at Guantanamo for almost seven years and are no longer considered enemy combatants by the United States, released into the care of 17 volunteer Uighur families by Friday. According to one of the detainees' attorneys, the presence of a local community willing to receive the detainees was key in the judge's decision that they be released on U.S. soil.
"The local Uighur presence is critical," said Susan Baker Manning, an attorney for the detainees. "These men are halfway around the world from their home and their families. They've been held in grinding isolation, many of them in solitary confinement for about a year and half. They are going to need some help."
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people and the largest ethnic group of the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, which Uighurs refer to as East Turkistan. The group has long complained of repression by Chinese authorities.
A few Uighurs settled in the Washington area as students in the 1980s, Turkel said. The number of asylum-seekers picked up in the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and amid increasing political pressure in China. Turkel came as a law student to American University in 1995 and was subsequently granted political asylum.
The refugees, who tend to be college educated, are attracted to the nation's capital because they often remain active in the Uighur cause and other human rights issues.
"They tend to be very political," Turkel said. "They will talk to anyone, the cashier at the grocery store: 'I'm from the northwestern part of China that has been occupied by communist China for 50 years. We've suffered just like the Tibetans, but nobody knows about us because we don't have a Dalai Lama.' That's a common daily conversation, and it's a lot easier to have it here than in Lincoln, Nebraska."
Elshat Hassan, 46, of McLean was a professor of chemical engineering for 15 years in China before he fled with help from the United Nations. He was settled in Buffalo but moved to Virginia after only a few months in 2006.
"I wanted to be with other Uighur people," said Hassan, who has volunteered to host one of the released detainees and plans to cook him a polo, a ceremonial dish of lamb, carrots and rice. After working in a Uighur-owned frame shop for six months, Hassan is now an information technology specialist for Booz Allen Hamilton. "I didn't know anyone when I came, but they all helped me. And now I will help him."
Turkel said the local group is close-knit and active, and the court was crowded yesterday with area Uighurs. They gather several times a year, often at a rented hall at George Mason University, for ethnic celebrations. The largest is Nations Day, Nov. 12, a mix of political seminars and a traditional dance party.
If the legal system delivers the detainees to Washington in the next several weeks, next month's gathering promises to be the biggest ever, Turkel said.
"It will be huge," he said. "Having them released into Washington is more than just having some guys released from prison. It sends a big signal to China."