End 17 Years Of Injustice

The Taint of Guantánamo: Uighurs in Albania and Bermuda Seek Permission to Join Their Families in Canada

Former Guantánamo prisoner Ayub Mohammed with his daughter Azia, photographed in Albania. He is seeking permission from the Canadian government to allow him to settle in Canada with his Uighur-Canadian wife.

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By Andy Worthington, May 16, 2019

Two months ago, when we published an article about how former Guantánamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi was being prevented from having a passport, two and a half years after he was freed from Guantánamo, despite being promised that it would be returned after two years, I wrote about the scandal of how everyone released from the prison "will continue to be branded as 'enemy combatants' for the rest of their lives — unless, eventually, concerted action is taken by those who respect the law to hold the U.S. to account." As I also put it, "The status of the 'un-people' of Guantánamo is a peculiarly aberrant post-9/11 creation, and one that cannot be allowed to stand forever."

I also explained that, although it is reasonable to assume that all kinds of deals were made between the U.S. government and the prisoners’ home governments, details of these deals have never been made public — and even if they were, of course, we shouldn’t forget that whatever deals were arranged have absolutely no basis in international law.

I had reason to think yet again about this enduring injustice just last week, when the National Post, in Canada, published an article by reporter Tom Blackwell looking at the case of former Guantánamo prisoner Ayub Mohammed, a Uighur, part of an oppressed Turkic minority from north western China, also known as the Uyghurs.

Mohammed is one of 22 Uighurs who were seized in the U.S.’s inept post-9/11 dragnet and sent to Guantánamo, where it was fairly swiftly realized that they had been seized by mistake, because the Uighurs — as the prisoners repeatedly told them — bore no malice towards the U.S., and had just one enemy: the Chinese government that has historically persecuted them, and that, currently, is holding up to three million Uighurs in concentration camps.

Since being released — in Tirana, in Albania, with five other Uighurs and three other prisoners, in May 2006 — Ayub Mohammed "has earned a business degree from the New York University of Tirana in Albania," and has also "met online and married a Canadian woman, and had three children, all of whom are Canadian citizens."

"Now," the National Post added, "he wants to live with them in Montreal. But Mohammed’s four-year ordeal at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and the radioactive stigma that comes with it continue to haunt him."

Despite the U.S. authorities having concluded, before his release, that he was not, after all, an "enemy combatant," a Canadian visa officer, "[d]isagreeing with those George W. Bush administration officials," as the National Post described it, "concluded he was a member of an obscure terrorist organization, and thus inadmissible," and immigration officials then denied his request for permanent resident status in Canada.

The Federal Court of Canada recently ordered a new hearing for Mohammed, who is now 35 years old, but was just 17 when he ended up in U.S. custody in 2001, one of at least 22 juveniles who ended up at Guantánamo, where the U.S. authorities — and numerous other countries who sent intelligence agents to interrogate prisoners — ignored their obligations under the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on May 25, 2000 and entered into force on February 12, 2002. The Optional Protocol stresses the rehabilitation rather than the punishment of juvenile prisoners — those under 18 when their alleged crimes took place — but it was only ever observed at Guantánamo in relation to three very young Afghan prisoners, who were eventually held separately from the adult prisoners until their release.

Such is the taint of Guantánamo, however, that, even in court, Canadian federal lawyers argued that "a negative decision on Mohammed’s immigration request was 'inevitable.'"

Interviewed from Tirana, Mohammed told the National Post, "I live with that everyday, that stain of having been a detainee at Guantánamo Bay." He added, "Coming out of Guantánamo, I went into another kind of prison. Everywhere I go, I don’t have the documentation, I don’t have the freedom to move around and once people hear about my background, they stay away … After they hear about my past, they just disappear."

Although the Canadian Federal Court ruled that Mohammed "was denied procedural fairness in the way his visa request was handled," he is still struggling to categorically refute ungrounded claims that have followed him from Guantánamo, dealing with, as the National Post described it, "whether there is any reason to brand him an extremist." Despite the U.S. authorities releasing the men because of a recognition that they had no connection to terrorism, their alleged involvement with a Uighur separatist group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), continues to haunt them, even though it is clear that the U.S. authorities only described ETIM as a terrorist organization in 2002, at a time when, cynically, they were "anxious to win China’s support for the war on terror," as the newspaper described it.

This taint of extremism, the newspaper added, is a question that could also have an impact on two other Uighur men who were held at Guantánamo, Khalil Mamut and Salahadin Abdulahad, two of four Uighurs who were given hew homes in Bermuda in 2009. Like Ayub Mohammed, "they also married Uyghur-Canadian refugees and have applied to join them" in Canada. All three men are represented by Prasanna Balasundaram, a lawyer at the Downtown Legal Services clinic in Toronto.

While awaiting a decision from the Canadian court, the U.S. lawyers who represented the Guantánamo Uighurs told the National Post that they were "perplexed at the initial Canadian decision." Wells Dixon, an attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said, "With absolute certainty, Ayub is not and never was a member of a terrorist organization. I am shocked and appalled that Canada would deny someone like Ayub refuge on the basis that he was a terrorist."

Sabin Willett, a corporate bankruptcy lawyer who also represented Uighurs prisoners, told the National Post that "he and his wife visited the 'lads' in Albania, and were particularly charmed by Mohammed." As Willett explained, "He was the youngest. He was just a kid, a very charming, sweet kid. You wondered, 'How in hell did he get caught up in this mess?'"

Lawyers were not the only ones defending the men. Randall Schriver, a senior State Department official in the Bush administration — who is now Donald Trump’s assistant secretary of defence — told a congressional committee in 2009 that the Uighurs’ imprisonment was "a tragic error."

Chinese repression of the Uighurs

The National Post also spoke to the former prisoners about Uighur oppression in China now, which, as the newspaper acknowledged, "includes building vast 're-education' camps and pervasive surveillance" in Xinjiang province, the Chinese government’s name for their homeland.

Salahadin Abdulahad said that he "believes what China is doing to the Uighurs is far worse than anything that happened at Guantánamo Bay," and that he bore "little ill feeling toward the Americans who held him for seven years." He explained that "three of his brothers are locked in 'concentration camps,' while he’s been unable to contact his parents since 2015."

"I have no idea if they are dead or alive," he said.

Tom Blackwell then ran though the Guantánamo Uighurs’ story, noting how they "fled their homes because of such persecution," ending up in Afghanistan. Ayub Mohammed and Salahadin Abdulahad both told him that "they left Xinjiang for Pakistan with hopes of reaching other countries and studying in those places. Mohammed says he obtained a visa to the U.S., Abdulahad tried and failed to get one for Egypt. Both travelled across the unguarded border into Afghanistan after hearing that the Pakistanis were deporting Uighurs back to China.”

There, they found a small community of Uighurs, but, after the U.S.-led invasion began and their settlement was bombed, they were "lured into a trap by villagers eager to claim hefty bounties the Americans offered for suspected terrorists."

Despite the unprincipled claims that were made at Guantánamo about the Uighurs’ terrorist associations, to try to persuade the Chinese government to support the "war on terror," by 2005 U.S. government lawyers "admitted in court documents" that the Uighurs were "no longer classified as enemy combatants."

When Ayub Mohammed and four other Uighurs were released in May 2006, Albania was the only country at the time prepared to stand up to China by taking them in. However, the National Post noted that Mohammed "has been stranded there ever since," because he has been "[u]nable to obtain travel papers." In Bermuda, meanwhile, Salahadin Abdulahad says that, over the last ten years, "people have embraced the Uighurs." He told the newspaper that "he’s now working 10-12 hour days at a construction company, supporting his wife as she raises their three children in Toronto."

The National Post noted that, as early as 2005, "Washington was already lobbying various countries, including Canada, to accept Mohammed and others," but it was never easy finding countries prepared to challenge the Chinese government by taking in any of the Uighurs, especially with both the Bush and Obama administrations refusing to allow any of them to be re-settled in the U.S.

Former Bush official Randall Schriver told the congressional hearing on the Uighurs in 2009 that the men’s re-settlement was "something that I worked on directly and found extremely frustrating." He added, "It was the morally courageous countries that have now stepped forward."

Mehmet Tohti of the Uyghur Canadian Society told the National Post that he had "also pressed Canada to accept some of the detainees in the late 2000s." However, he said, one reason that the Harper government declined to get involved "was concern that the gesture might undermine attempts to help Hussein Celil, a Uighur-Canadian jailed in China on what many observers consider fabricated terrorism charges," who is still imprisoned.

As Ayub Mohammed continues to seek to be allowed to be united with his family, he explained how he met his wife, Aierken Mailikaimu, a Uyghur-Canadian who he calls "the love of my life." After an anonymous donor funded his degree in Albania, he started chatting on a social media site, where his wife-to-be "had posted a photograph of a fig tree from Artux, which turned out to be the hometown for both." A year later, she arrived in Albania with her father, to get married to Ayub. As the National Post explained, "The oldest of their children, daughter Azia, is now eight, but the couple wants to raise them in Canada."

In conclusion, Mohammed said that "Canadians have nothing to fear" from him.

"If they knew me, they would know I’m innocent, that I’m a non-violent person, that I’m against any kind of violence and bloodshed," he said, adding, "I’m the kind of person who cares not just about human rights but cares for all living things. Who feels hurt when other living things hurt."