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Rights Groups Express Concern over Fate of Uighur Muslims Held in Guantanamo - 2003-12-03


U.S. authorities reportedly may release more than 100 terrorist suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But human rights activists say they are concerned that minority Uighur Muslim detainees from China will face continued persecution if they are returned to their home country.

Uighur Muslims from a region in China's far northwest, have been attempting for decades to get more autonomy and even an independent homeland. Because of this, human rights groups have accused Beijing of repressing Uighurs and systematically torturing them.

The Uighur plight is once again raising attention as human rights activists express concern that they may be among the Guantanamo Bay detainees released and sent back to their home countries.

Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, says a year ago, his group thought that U.S. authorities holding Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay would not send them back to China, to face possible persecution. Now, though, he says he understands there is a debate about exactly that - releasing the Uighurs to Chinese authority.

"We have very good information from government sources that they are contemplating this, that there is a debate within the U.S. government as to whether this is a good thing," he said.

Mr. Adams is even more concerned about the plight of Uighur detainees at Guantanamo following the recent case of a Syrian-born Canadian who was tortured by Syrian authorities after he was deported from the United States to Syria.

"Because the idea that Maher Arar - the idea that the U.S. would accept assurances from a state like Syria is really appalling," he said. "And, of course, the assurances weren't honored and he was tortured. So, we are very concerned that the U.S. should not accept assurances from China, because their record is very clear, that they will mistreat people they consider to be opponents of the state."

Instead, for Mr. Adams, the U.S. government should retain responsibility for the Uighurs, especially if they are found not to have committed any crime.

"Now once they've taken into custody people who, upon release, would face persecution in their own country, then it's the responsibility of the government that holds those people to release them to a place where they would not face persecution," he said. "So we think the Uighurs should not be returned to China. If the United States cannot charge these people with crimes, they now are essentially the United States problem."

When asked about the Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters in Beijing that his country is in close consultations with the United States on combating terrorism. He added that China will handle what he referred to as "specific questions" in accordance with relevant international and domestic laws.

Despite these assurances, though, Uighur-American Association president Alim Seytoff says he does not believe it.

"Although we believe China may promise to the United States government that China will not execute those Uighurs, but those Uighurs will surely die of torture in prison or with fake heart attacks or fake suicides," he said.

Meanwhile, Department of Defense spokeswoman, Lieutenant Commander Barbara Burfeind, gave few details about possible transfers of detainees out of Guantanamo. She said U.S. military officials make no statements about detainee movements until after the transfers have occurred. She also refused to discuss the nationalities of the detainees, which news reports say come from around 40 different countries.

Lieutenant Commander Burfeind pointed out that U.S. authorities so far have released a total of 88 detainees from Guantanamo, with about 660 remaining. Most were completely released in their home countries, but she said several are still being detained by authorities in Saudi Arabia.

"Eighty-four of the detainees were transferred for release and four were transferred for continued detention. That's where you get the total of 88," she explained. "That's why I'm careful to say 'left Guantanamo - not released.'"

Lieutenant Commander Burfeind stressed that the process of releasing detainees from Guantanamo is ongoing. "Our intent always has been to release detainees when possible, so there is this constant review of the detention of each detainee," she said. "So, they take them on a case by case basis, based on various factors."

While human rights concerns are taken into consideration, she added, two of the key factors in assessing whether to continue holding an individual detainee have to do with intelligence value and whether the person would pose a further threat to the United States.

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