As representatives of the world’s media descended on Bermuda to meet the four Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province) who had just arrived in the capital, Hamilton, after being freed from Guantánamo and given a new home by Bermuda’s Premier Ewart Brown, they gave their first interview to Bermuda’s Royal Gazette, reveling in their early experience of “a small country of people with big hearts,” and explaining, as the Gazette described it, that they “had never even heard of al-Qaeda” until they arrived at Guantánamo seven years ago. They added that they “had never seen pictures of what happened on September 11, 2001, but they did not approve of the terrorist attacks that killed about 3,000 people in the US.”
An exclusive photo of the Uighurs, as provided by Rushan Abbas. From L to R: Salahidin Abdulahad, Ablikim Turahun, lawyers Sabin Willett and Susan Baker Manning, Khalil Manut, and Abdulla Abdulqadir.
One of the men, Salahidin Abdulahad, explained, “We had not seen anything of the 9/11 attacks, but from what we have heard, it was a terrible tragedy that happened to the American people. We are very sympathetic with the families of those who lost their lives. We’d never heard of al-Qaeda until we came to Guantánamo and heard about them from our interrogators. From what we have heard about them, they are an extremely radical group, with totally different ideals from ours. We are a peace-loving people.”
As someone who has studied the Uighurs’ stories since 2006, first in my book The Guantánamo Files and then in several dozen articles over the last few years, the men’s lack of knowledge about al-Qaeda did not surprise me, as they left their homeland before the 9/11 attacks, and ended up in a small, rundown settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains that was almost totally cut off from the outside world. Such is the taint of Guantánamo, however, that, despite being cleared of being “enemy combatants” by the Bush administration, the US military and the US courts, the Uighurs are still required to prove that they had no connection to terrorist activities.
In the interview, the men took issue with an allegation that has plagued them since being cleared for release: that they had attended “a terrorist training camp” in Afghanistan. Such is the nature of political maneuvering in the United States that this allegation still clings to them, because the Justice Department, first under President Bush, and then under President Obama, used it in an unprincipled attempt to find a reason to deny them entry into the United States (after a judge ordered them to be resettled in the US last October), despite the fact that it contradicts the Bush administration’s own finding that the men never had any involvement in terrorist activity.
Responding to the allegation, Salahidin Abdulahad told the Gazette, “That is a totally false accusation. We were just fleeing Chinese suppression when we went to Afghanistan. We did not go to a military or terrorist training camp. We were in a little village and stayed in some abandoned buildings there. If you saw it you would know it’s ridiculous to call this place a military training camp.”
After explaining that they “were persecuted in their homeland by the Chinese authorities and fled over the border into Afghanistan to escape,” Abdulahad added, “We wanted to go to a peaceful country in Europe, but because of the difficulties with visas and passports, we had to do the next best thing, which was to cross the border into Afghanistan, which was much easier to do.”
The Uighurs then gave the Gazette a brief history lesson, explaining that they “had their own country until it was seized by China in 1949,” and adding that they “have been an oppressed minority for decades.” Providing an example, the men explained that “a mother who had two children and who was pregnant would be subject to a forced abortion at the hands of the authorities,” even though abortion is against the Uighurs’ religion.
The men also explained that, after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, when the settlement was bombed by US forces, they fled to Pakistan, where they were “tricked by Pakistani tribesman, who handed them over to the US military for cash.”
Another exclusive photo provided by Rushan Abbas. Kahlil Manut gets to grips with a moped.
Moving on to Guantánamo, the men said that their “worst moments” came not during their “long stretches of solitary confinement in the spartan cells,” but “when the Americans allowed a visit by Chinese military officials,” who were permitted to interrogate them for two weeks. This was indeed a cynical move on the part of the US authorities, who were currying favor with the Chinese government in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was in marked contrast to the situation that prevailed in previous years, when the Uighurs’ plight was recognized in some US political circles as being akin to that of the Tibetans.
Describing the visit of the Chinese intelligence agents, Salahidin Abdulahad said, “The Chinese delegation treated us very badly. They brought me out and interrogated me for six hours straight with no food or rest. They took me back to my cell and I was extremely tired. But then they came straight back to my cell and took me out for another six hours of interrogation. It went on that way for one-and-a-half days.” Another of the men, Ablikim Turahun, added more disturbing details. “When the Chinese came they wanted to take my picture, but I didn’t want them to, because I was afraid they would harm my family.” He said. “But one of the American guards grabbed my beard and the other held my hands behind my back so they could take the picture.”
Everything the Uighurs told the Gazette — with the exception of Ablikim Turahun’s recollection of being restrained by US guards while Chinese agents took his photo — has, of course, been reported before, as the Uighurs’ explanations of how they ended up in Guantánamo were unwavering throughout their long ordeal in US custody. Nevertheless, Premier Brown has come under pressure for accepting the men, partly from the British government, which has claimed that it was not informed about the decision to accept them (although, as I reported previously, I find this claim unconvincing), and partly from opposition politicians, who appear to view the men’s arrival as an opportunity to score political points at the expense of Premier Brown, and have threatened to call for a vote of no confidence in the current administration.
On Bermuda itself, however, the men appear to have sidestepped the fallout from the political wrangling, at least in their personal dealings with the islands’ citizens. One of their lawyers, Sabin Willett, told the Gazette that when they went into a local store to buy clothes, the radio was on, and various participants in a talk show “were complaining about ‘terrorists’ not being welcome in Bermuda.” Willett explained that the storekeeper, who “looked at the men and quickly realized who they must be,” ignored the voices on the radio and said, “Well, I welcome you here.”
Abdulla Abdulqadir, photographed by Susan Baker Manning.
A welcome — and the opportunity to work, and to prove themselves capable of contributing positively to their new home — is all the men seek. “Bermuda had the courage to step up and do this,” Salahidin Abdulahad explained. “It’s a small place but the people have extremely big hearts. We want to live a peaceful and beautiful life here and we are ready to work hard. People know we have been in Guantánamo and they have a picture of us which is very different from who we are. When people get to know us they will know what kind of people we are. We are peace-loving people.”
Other reporters who have met the men in the last few days have confirmed their joy at their new-found freedom, and their desire to integrate as swiftly as possible. Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star noted that, in the apartment provided for them by the US government until they find work — “which likely won’t be a problem since local companies have reportedly already made six offers,” as she put it — the men have “managed to form a makeshift family,” helped by their American translator Rushan Abbas, who initially worked with US interrogators after arriving at Guantánamo in 2002, before joining the Uighurs’ defense team. As Shephard described it, Abbas, who alternated between typing emails and “kneading dough for a traditional Uighur dinner … joked that, despite only being a few years older, she considered the men her children.” Shephard also explained that the men “have the assistance of a retired Bermudian army major, Glenn Brangman, who now works with the government,” and who “has become their energetic guide.”
In the New York Times, Eric Eckholm found Maj. Gen. Brangman to be a strong advocate for the Uighurs’ acceptance in Bermuda. After speaking to the men’s lawyers, who explained that they “have been promised work visas and, in perhaps a year or so, possible citizenship,” which “would give them passports and a right to travel,” Eckholm sought the opinion of Brangman, who said, simply, “The intent is that they shall become Bermudians.” Eckholm also wrote more about the islanders’ response to the new arrivals, noting that, “As the men venture from the seaside cottage where they temporarily live until they get jobs and figure out next steps, people often come up to shake their hands and wish them well, and the men said they were deeply touched.” He added that, “While some less affluent residents said they felt it was unfair to offer jobs and citizenship to men the United States itself would not take, many others shrugged and expressed pride at Bermudan hospitality.”
As the men settle into their new lives, they are all hoping that, after seven years of wrongful imprisonment, Bermudan hospitality will prevail over the rumors and innuendo that are a peculiar side-effect of Guantánamo, in which men held outside the law, never charged or tried, and treated abominably for seven long years, are, perversely, regarded with suspicion for the rest of their lives by all manner of people who should know better, and who should realize that holding prisoners based on a presumption of guilt, and attempting to prevent them from ever having the opportunity to challenge the basis of that presumption, will remain a particularly low point in the history of the United States, until Guantánamo is finally closed, and those still held are either charged or released.
In the meantime, the men also want the world to remember that 13 of their compatriots are still in Guantánamo, although according to information leaked last week, the US government is hoping to resettle them on the Pacific island of Palau, and is, it must be noted, anxious to do this before June 25, when the US Supreme Court is scheduled to meet to discuss whether US courts have any authority to order Guantánamo prisoners to be released into the United States. Speaking to a reporter from Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Abdulla Abdulqadir made a point of saying, “Our 13 brothers still in Guantánamo are just the same as us. People need to understand that.”
Salahidin Abdulahad and Khalil Manut, photographed by Michelle Shephard for the Toronto Star, enjoy their new-found freedom by fishing in the ocean.
Note: There seems to be an enormous amount of confusion regarding the men’s names. Salahidin Abdulahad was previously identified as Abdul Semet and was known to the Pentagon as Emam Abdulahat, Ablikim Turahun was previously identified as Huzaifa Parhat, Khalil Manut was previously identified as Abdul Nasser and was known to the Pentagon as Abdul Helil Mamut, and Abdulla Abdulqadir was previously identified as Jalal Jalaladin and was known to the Pentagon as Abdullah Abdulquadirakhun.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison