A sliver of good news from Guantanamo

From Amnesty International's replica of a cell at Guantanamo Bay. Photo by Mushroom and Rooster, via Flickr.

On Thursday, April 19, the Pentagon announced the transfer of two men from Guantanamo to El Salvador. Abdul Razakah and Hammad Memet tasted freedom for the first time in 10 years last month and began a new life in their new home.

El Salvador is a long way from China’s Xinjiang Province, where they were born. In 2001, Abdul and Hammad — along with 20 other Uighurs — fled China. As members of that country’s ethnic Muslim minority, they faced growing repression due to a military crackdown on an armed separatist movement in the region. The men ended up in Afghanistan — a place where they thought it would be safe to be Muslims — but it was the fall of 2001 and the United States had declared war. When a U.S. bomb destroyed the house where they were staying, they fled again, this time to Pakistan. There, they were arrested late in 2001 and turned over to the United States military as suspicious foreigners. They ended up in Guantanamo in 2002, where they have been ever since.

Beyond the hardship, dislocation, terror and confinement of Guantanamo, the Uighurs faced another particular challenge while in custody: an illogical legal limbo. The Bush administration determined early on that the men were not enemy combatants, that they had no ties with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and that they should not continue to be held. But U.S. law prohibited their return to China because they faced the threat of persecution or torture there.

The next logical place was the United States, specifically the D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia, which is home to a large, wealthy and well-established Uighur population eager to welcome their brethren and help them settle into a new life. The United States arrested these men without cause and held them for years without charge, so letting them into the United States seemed like the least we could do.

But it was not to be. A fierce anti-Guantanamo sentiment took hold of Congress, and in the deluge of ignorance, cowardice and recalcitrance on Capitol Hill, the Uighurs and others cleared for release but unable to be repatriated were caught in a terrible trap.

Five were eventually released in 2006, but they were settled in Albania (of all places). Over the next six years, the majority of the Uighurs have left Guantanamo and settled in Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland… and now El Salvador. Three remain in Guantanamo. According to The Washington Post, El Salvador would have taken all five of the last Uighurs, but three of the men decided that they wanted to live where they could practice Islam openly and with fellow believers.

In preparation for their new life, Abdul and Hammad have learned Spanish. Susan Baker Manning, a member of their legal team, told the Associated Press, “They are well and very happy … We are extremely pleased that the government of El Salvador has taken them in and granted them refuge.” As part of the release agreement with the United States, these former prisoners will not be granted passports or be allowed to leave the country.

Along with two friends, Luke Hansen, a Jesuit seminarian, traveled to Bermuda in 2010 to meet the four Uighur men transferred there from Guantanamo. Bermuda is a beautiful place, but it is not home. Luke said that in his conversations with the men, it became clear that their life on the island constitutes

another form of imprisonment. In Bermuda, a tiny island in the North Atlantic, the Uighur men can travel only as far as they can swim. Upon their arrival in Bermuda, an overseas territory of Great Britain, the Uighur men were promised British passports. Nearly three years later, it is believed that the men will never receive passports. Even though an ocean has replaced the prison walls, the separation from community and family remains the same.

On hearing the news of the United States’ latest transfer, Luke wrote:

I feel shame and outrage that our government has forced two more detainees into such a tragic and inhuman choice: continued imprisonment or “freedom” in an entirely foreign land — without community, family, or (presumably) the ability to travel beyond El Salvador’s borders.

Another participant in that Bermuda trip, Jeremy Kirk, wrote:

I am joyful that they no longer live in indefinite detention in cages at Guantanamo. I am outraged that it has taken so long for this relocation to occur and am concerned how little control these men may continue to have over their future; their ability to see their families, to travel and to start families of their own.

The tiny Central American nation of El Salvador was the site of a brutal civil war throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in which the United States backed the iron-fisted oligarchy with weapons, money and advisers against FMLN guerrillas. Tens of thousands were killed in the decades of war and many more fled the country. Now, the president is a member of the FMLN, and El Salvador has not forgotten that the world offered its people sanctuary during the war. Their foreign-affairs office issued a statement that the invitation was offered on “humanitarian grounds and in recognition of the fact that other countries have taken in their citizens as refugees in the past because of the 1980–1992 civil war.”

Abdul and Hammad are already having an impact on their new home. Just a week or so after they came to El Salvador, Archbishop José Luis Escobar of San Salvador called for closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. After a Sunday mass, he gave a press conference, saying “Let’s hope that the whole Guantanamo prison ends. It would be ideal for the good of the world, of democracy and of liberty. It is an issue of humanity, it is necessary that we have a solidaristic and positive attitude in face of situations such as these.”

Amen, Padre! Good news. But incomplete. Imperfect. A very small step toward justice.

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