Uighurs in exile

By Michelle Chen Jul 06, 2009

The Uighur detainees that the government recently shipped off from Gitmo to Bermuda have been bumped off the front pages lately. But the Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority resurfaced in the headlines on Sunday—this time in the form of bloodshed erupting in Western China. American readers may find it difficult to square the maltreatment of Uighur detainees with the oppression the Uighur community has faced in China. Bermuda’s tranquil shores, after all, have been portrayed as a “paradise” for the four released detainees, replete with ice cream and tropical vistas. (Sure beats Albania, right?) It’s important to keep in mind the circumstances that brought the Uighurs into U.S. custody, and conditions in China that prevent them from being returned. The Uighurs were one of many groups swept up in a global post-9/11 spasm of anti-terrorism crackdowns. In shadowy military tribunal proceedings, the detainees claimed they were captured by Pakistani bounty-hunters linked to the U.S. Though the Bermuda Four may have received military training in Afghanistan, they, like the 13 Uighurs who remain at Gitmo, have been deemed to pose no threat to U.S. security. Yet they’ve languished in a legal black hole as lawmakers squabbled over whether to allow former detainees into the United States (where a sizable Uighur-American community would have welcomed them), or dump them on another country willing to take people we wrongfully imprisoned for years. In any case, it would be unsafe to turn them over to China. The connection between the violence in Urumuqi (apparently stemming from a peaceful protest) and the desolation of Guantanamo Bay is more direct than it seems: Chinese officials were reportedly involved with brutal interrogations in which detainees were subjected to extreme temperatures and sleep deprivation. Even with a political shift in Washington, the White House has blocked a federal court directive to release them immediately. Ginny Sloan of the Constitution Project said a not-in-my-backyard sentiment has overtaken Congress and the White House:

Congress has created a culture of fear in Washington, with members rushing to introduce bills that would prevent any detainees from being transferred into their districts… by accepting its share of responsibility, the United States would have sent a clear signal to our allies, encouraging other countries to partner with us to fulfill the promise to close the Guantanamo detention facility in one year’s time.

Cut to the Western Chinese boomtown of Urumqi in Xinjiang—where Uighurs live under the political and economic grip of China’s Han majority. Xinjiang, in theory, is supposed to enjoy relative independence. But the clashes on Sunday, and the longstanding ethnic tensions that fueled them, underscored the perils of “autonomy” in an authoritarian state. There have been reports of violence on both sides, according to Western news outlets, but the asymmetry of political power foreshadows intensified state oppression and human rights abuses. Amnesty International has demanded, perhaps in vain, an investigation focused on the underlying unrest in the region:

Chinese government policies, including those that limit use of the Uighur language, severe restrictions on freedom of religion, and a sustained influx of Han Chinese migrants into the region, are destroying customs and, together with employment discrimination, fuelling discontent and ethnic tensions. The Chinese government has mounted an aggressive campaign that has led to the arrest and arbitrary detention of thousands of Uighurs on charges of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” for peacefully exercising their human rights.

The Chinese government’s continued persecution of the Uighurs is what prevents the U.S. from repatriating the detainees. So while Bermuda might make good copy as an oasis for survivors of injustice at the hands of Washington and Beijing, the Uighur detainees remain exiles from two of the world’s most powerful nations. Whatever diplomatic gestures they are afforded, the rubric of counter-terrorism will continue to justify human rights violations against Muslim communities around the globe. Image: Street protest in Urumqi (Uyghur American Association)