U.S. lawmakers are reacting to the news that the Pacific island nation of Palau has agreed to accept 17 Uighur detainees being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A House of Representatives committee began public hearings on the Uighur issue at Guantanamo and closely-related human rights issues in China.
Before Palau accepted a U.S. request, the Obama administration, and Bush administration before, tried unsuccessfully to find a country to take the Uighurs, who feared persecution if they were sent back to China where the Beijing government considers them terrorists.
The 17 Uighurs were among 22 detained after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States. Five of the original group were sent to Albania in 2006.
The Bush administration later determined that those remaining were not enemy combatants. And a federal court ordered them released, noting that there was substantial support for the claim that China was the source of evidence against them.
U.S. Representative William Delahunt says he is concerned that in the debate over the Guantanamo Bay detention center, Americans and members of Congress have been "duped" by disinformation from the Chinese government about the Uighur people, including suggestions that they support extreme forms of Islam.
It is important, he adds, that the case of the Uighurs, including reasons behind their original transfer to Guantanamo Bay be investigated further. "The version that is being echoed here in the U.S. right in the halls of Congress, I suspect, is absolutely false and is reflective of intelligence that has been provided to the U.S. government by the Chinese, by the communist Chinese, not by independent groups," he said.
Delahunt says he will go to Palau, if necessary, to interview the Uighurs, noting that his requests to visit the Guantanamo detention center to conduct such interviews has been denied by U.S. authorities.
Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer says China's government has sought to demonize Uighurs as terrorists and Islamic radicals. Speaking through an interpreter, she said the Uighurs being held at Guantanamo Bay would be tortured if they returned to China. "With regard to Guantanamo, just one comment. As long as the Uighurs at Guantanamo are released and relocated, resettled in a Western democracy, we are happy, as long as they are not sent back to China," he said.
Kadeer adds that the Uighurs are not seeking a religious state in China and that, like others, including Tibetans, simply desire greater freedom.
Kara Miriam Abramson, Advocacy Director for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which monitors human rights and the rule of law in China, says Uighur religious practices probably would be opposed by al-Qaida, but make the group a target of the Chinese government.
"The Chinese government has been so vigorous in painting the Uighurs as extremists and people who engaged in illegal religious activity -- and basically that can mean anything outside of the tightly controlled narrow space for state-approved, Chinese-government, state approved religious activity, including say holding unauthorized religious classes for children -- this is what gets painted as an illegal religious activity or can be described as extremism," he said.
Nury Turkel, a Uighur rights activist and attorney, told Democratic Representative William Delahunt that the Uighurs cannot return to China.
DELAHUNT: "What would their fate have been in your opinion?"
TURKEL: "It would have been equivalent to a one way ticket to the gas chamber. The Uighur region, according to various human rights reports, [is] the only region in China where people face the death penalty for political offenses. And the Guantanamo [Bay detention facility], Uighurs openly stated that they had a philosophical animosity toward Communism. That itself is a crime; it's a punishable crime."
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher criticized others in his party who assert that Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay had terrorist links and that releasing them in the United States would endanger Americans.
"How could we not see that by detaining these men we were only participants in China's hateful and discriminatory policies toward the Uighurs, China's attempt to suppress these people? The Republican Party should not be in the business of supporting the Chinese Communist Party's self-serving vision of what is right and what is wrong," he said.
Representative Delahunt has scheduled a second hearing on the Uighur issue next week, saying that members of Congress need to learn whatever lessons are to be learned from the detention and treatment of Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.