Guantanamo Uyghurs' resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies

Guantánamo is full of bleak stories. How could it fail to be, when it is a vast failed experiment, a "terror prison" that contains few terrorists, a place where innocent men and foot soldiers from someone else's war -- never adequately screened to determine whether they actually constituted a threat to the United States -- have been held for nearly seven years without charge or trial?

At present, some of Guantánamo's bleakest stories are those of the Uyghurs (or Uighurs), refugees from Chinese oppression, who had sheltered in Afghanistan, and were seized and sold to US forces as they sought refuge in Pakistan after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

Last week, I told the story of the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, after the government admitted that it had no reason to regard them as "enemy combatants," and Judge Ricardo Urbina, in the District Court in Washington D.C., ruled that their continued imprisonment was therefore unconstitutional, and that, because they cannot be returned to China, and no other country can be persuaded to take them, they should be released to the care of communities in Washington D.C. and Tallahassee, Florida, who submitted detailed plans for their welfare to the court.

For one proud moment, it looked as if justice would be done, but the Uyghurs were then hurled back into limbo, as the government appealed Judge Urbina's ruling, shamelessly resuscitating its own long-discredited claims that the Uyghurs were "a danger to the public," who had "admitted receiving weapons training at a military training camp." Three appeals court judges granted the government a temporary stay, though with the hopeful caveat that it "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits" of the government's request.

Since the appeal, it has become apparent that the government's stooges in the Justice Department are intent on keeping the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, as their false claims about the men have skewered the State Department's chances of finding a third country to take them. As William Glaberson reported in the New York Times, an administration official, speaking anonymously, said that the State Department's position was that the Justice Department's appeal had "compromised diplomatic efforts" to persuade a third country to take the men. "Based on what they were saying in the brief, it made it impossible to conduct negotiations," the official said.

Although the Justice Department refused to comment, Clint Williamson, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for war crimes, who has fruitlessly been attempting to negotiate resettlement plans with other countries for several years, explained how the government's bullish and unsubstantiated statements had scuppered his chances of finding a last minute solution to the problem. Speaking to the Times, he said, "I was scheduled to depart on another round of negotiations early this week. It was impossible to resolve some concerns we had about going forward at the time. As a result I canceled the trip."

A decision on the government's appeal is expected soon, but in the meantime the Uyghurs' supporters in Tallahassee are still hoping that Judge Urbina's ruling will be upheld. On October 1, 19 religious leaders -- 16 Christians, a Rabbi and two Muslims -- issued a statement, in which they declared their support for "an inter-faith effort to resettle three of the Uyghur prisoners currently held in federal custody at the facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba," and pledged that, "Should these men be paroled, we will offer our personal welcome and support, and will urge the faith communities with whom we are associated to offer spiritual, financial, and practical assistance for their resettlement and incorporation into the Tallahassee community."

In a detailed plan, the Steering Committee of the Tallahassee Uyghur Resettlement Plan -- a mixture of religious leaders and sympathetic professionals -- arranged to locate an apartment for the men, secured them jobs in a local restaurant, arranged for English lessons and medical and psychiatric support, and raised money to fund the plan through a network already established to provide support to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

All of this was credited with helping persuade Judge Urbina that resettling the Uyghurs in the United States was feasible, and when Carol Rosenberg spoke to community leaders for the Miami Herald this week, she found that sympathy for the Uyghurs was widespread. Noting that their supporters "liken their plight to that of the Tibetans, without the benefit of a celebrity like the Dalai Lama to tell their story," Rosenberg spoke to Brant Copeland, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee and a member of the Steering Committee. Copeland delivered an extraordinary sermon about the Uyghurs to his congregation last month (available here), describing their story and extolling the virtues of compassion, and he explained the Committee's statement of support as follows:

It's a pro-Jesus statement. Regardless of one's political opinion, these are folks who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they have been so unjustly imprisoned for seven years. This issue cuts across all the political agendas. It's a pro-compassion statement. And a pro-Mohammed statement and a pro-Moses statement.

Rosenberg also spoke to civil rights attorney Kent Spriggs, who has represented several Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo. It was Spriggs who introduced the plan to community leaders in Tallahassee, explaining the Uyghurs' story to Salah Bakhashwin, who spread the word through the city's 3,000-member Muslim community. A Saudi by birth, Bakhashwin came to America at the age of 17, and told Rosenberg that he was "weary of the 'guilt-by-association' atmosphere toward Muslims that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks." He added, "We're going to show the people of Tallahassee and Florida what happens when people of faith come together for the community good." Another Saudi-born Tallahassee resident -- a massage therapist -- took on the role as leader of the host community, and when he told a Turkish-American businessman about it, the man guaranteed the Uyghurs jobs at his Italian restaurant chain. Another local, of Pakistani origin, found them an apartment near Tallahassee's main mosque.

Rosenberg also spoke to other religious leaders. The Reverend John Lown, of the Lafayette Presbyterian Church, explained that he would "model the absorption program after his '90s experience with the Northern Virginia Council of Churches resettling Bosnians and Ukrainians," and Rabbi Jack Romberg, of the Reform movement's Temple Israel, explained, "If indeed these people are found to be harmless, it's only just that we find a way to take them in, get them on their feet and up and running as people who function in the community." Rosenberg left the final word to Naeem Harris, the Imam of Tallahassee's main mosque, who "has now embraced the idea that he will serve as spiritual leader" for the three Uyghurs. "Look at the good that can come from it," Harris explained. "This can be an opportunity to show a lot of non-Muslims the real religion of Islam.''

To my eyes, the Tallahassee Uyghur Resettlement Plan is a glorious example of American generosity: a group of diverse individuals, acutely aware of their own background as immigrants and of the charitable obligations of their various religions, coming together to help a new group of immigrants in need. But I recall, of course, that the decision about the Uyghurs' future rests not with the community leaders in Tallahassee or Washington D.C., but with judges who may be less in touch with their own roots as immigrants, and who may have forgotten that their own ancestors once fled injustice and persecution for the promise of America.