Note: This is an article than ran in the Sept. 29 edition of the Chicago Tribune.
WASHINGTON — The United States held him for seven years and then, ultimately, decided that he poses no threat to national security. But he’s still sitting in prison at Guantanamo Bay because no other country will take him. Nor will the U.S. let him come here to live, even temporarily.
In the Kafkaesque world of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being eligible for freedom doesn’t make you free.
He is Huzaifa Parhat, who now promises to be the next test case in detainee rights in the war on terror. Parhat is a Uighur, a Muslim from western China, picked up in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks on suspicion of having ties to the Taliban. Some Uighurs (pronounced WE-goors) are part of a movement that seeks separation from China to form their own Islamic nation.
The Chinese government considers Uighurs a threat to the country’s security and is accused of widespread human-rights abuses in their home province of Xinjiang. The U.S. State Department will not return Uighur detainees at Guantanamo to China because of fears that they will be imprisoned or tortured.
But the U.S., too, has recently branded Uighur separatists as terrorists, even though a decade ago they were cheered by conservatives such as the late Sen. Jesse Helms for opposing the Chinese government.
Parhat scored a major victory in June when he became the first Guantanamo detainee to have his detention ruled invalid by a U.S. federal appeals court. Since then, his lawyers have been trying to free him from the naval prison, but the Bush administration has resisted, arguing, in essence, that even though there is no longer any basis to hold him as an enemy of the state, it still has the power to decide how, where, and when to let him go.
Now his lawyers are pressing for a court to order an extraordinary remedy. They want Parhat to come to the U.S. to testify that he poses no threat. And after that, they want him released in the U.S. to live until another home can be found for him.
Essentially, they are asking that he be paroled. A federal judge in Washington will hear the request Oct. 7.
“The Uighurs are really the poster boys for what happens when you exclude judicial review from something like Guantanamo,” said Jason Pinney, a Boston-based lawyer for Parhat. “You get abuse.”
The Justice Department says that it won’t allow Parhat to even set foot in this country. Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey has long resisted any efforts to allow detainees inside the country, even for court hearings.
But cases such as Parhat’s will grow increasingly common as the Pentagon pushes to empty Guantanamo and resettle detainees who are no longer deemed to be enemy combatants or guilty of war crimes. And the results of his litigation could help establish whether, at some point, the government forfeits control of its captives’ movements.
Parhat’s situation provides a little insight into the Pentagon’s grounds for holding some of the detainees in the first place. In Parhat’s case, a three-judge panel held that there was simply no evidence in the record to support a finding that he should have been held as an enemy combatant. The government had argued that it was enough that Parhat was a Uighur, that he had been “affiliated” with a Uighur independence group, and that the group had been “associated” with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
While details of his capture and imprisonment are murky, it is known that Parhat traveled from China to Afghanistan in 2001. There, he lived briefly in what his lawyers say was a Uighur refugee camp but what the government terms a terrorist training site. He was turned over to American forces in 2002.
Still, the Defense Department has produced no evidence that Parhat was looking to wage war against the U.S., and Parhat told interviewers that his enemy is China. Parhat’s lawyers suggest that Parhat and about 20 other Uighurs were held at Guantanamo because the U.S. wanted to enlist China’s support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Pinney said the Bush administration branded a Uighur separatist group a terrorist organization only after the Uighurs were imprisoned at Guantanamo, noting that the Pentagon gave access to Chinese interrogators to speak to the detainees. “If you connect the dots, it does not look good,” he said. “The government knew it did something wrong, picked up the wrong people.”
But the Pentagon denies the Uighurs were held to curry favor with China. “This assertion is categorically untrue,” said Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman. “For years, we have been hard at work with the international community in resettlement options for the Uighurs at Guantanamo, as we do not repatriate detainees to countries which cannot provide credible assurances of humane treatment.”
The State Department says that more than 90 countries refused to accept the Uighurs. “They want to blame the international community. They won’t accept these poor Uighurs,” Pinney said. “You’ve brought them here and you have labeled them terrorists. The worst of the worst. Cold-blooded killers.”
That leaves resettlement in the United States as perhaps the most workable option for the Guantanamo Uighurs. About 2,000 Uighurs live in the U.S., and their status as enemies of the Chinese government makes them eligible for political asylum here.
Except, that is, for the Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay, even though they for the large part have been cleared of wrongdoing. Why? On that issue, the Pentagon defers to the Department of Homeland Security, which says the detainees have ties to terrorist organizations.