Toronto, Canada – It is still painful for Ayoub Mohammed to talk about his detention at Guantanamo Bay, the notorious United States-run site in Cuba that he describes as being closer to “a cage” than a prison.
“We felt like animals … It was overwhelming,” Mohammed, 37, told Al Jazeera from Albania, where he now lives as a refugee.
Despite enduring four years of torture at Guantanamo in the 2000s, where he was held under false allegations of being an “enemy combatant”, he said the current separation from his wife and two young children is another kind of pain.
Mohammed has been waiting for more than six years to reunite with his family who live in Canada and hold Canadian citizenship, but his application for permanent residency has been rejected twice – the last time in August.
“My family is everything to me. They’re my existence, my happiness – they’re everything. I have nothing else,” Mohammed said. “For both of us – for them and me – the separation is psychological pain.”
It has been nearly 20 years since the US military exonerated Mohammed, concluding that he is an innocent man who had been wrongfully jailed – but the unfounded allegations continue to burden him. Today, he remains in limbo, waiting anxiously to be reunited with his loved ones.
‘They sold me for $5,000’
Mohammed left his native East Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang in western China, in August 2001 at age 17 to obtain a US visa in Pakistan for his studies, eager to secure a better future for himself.
But Mohammed said he and other ethnic Uighurs were captured by bounty hunters in the aftermath of September 11 attacks, handed over to the Pakistani government and sold to US forces “without any evidence” of wrongdoing.
“They sold me for $5,000 and then I had all these accusations piled up on me,” he said. “But it’s always just been about politics.”
He was sent to Guantanamo in 2002, accused of being a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China says is a Uighur “terrorist” group.
But in 2003, the US concluded that he was not a threat to the country’s security and two years later, the US Combatant Status Review Tribunal exonerated him, declaring that Mohammed was not an “enemy combatant”. He was released and sent to live in Albania in 2006.
In 2008, the US said none of the 22 Uighur detainees who had been held at Guantanamo was an “enemy combatant”.
‘Very problematic’ evidence
But the Canadian government has rejected Mohammed’s permanent residency application.
Ottawa says its decision has nothing to do with the time he spent at Guantanamo, but rather that its concerns lie in his alleged involvement with the ETIM.
In 2016, an immigration officer cited “reasonable grounds to believe that he was a member of … [the ETIM] – that engaged in terrorism”, an allegation Mohammed has always denied.
A spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the federal government department responsible for immigration issues, told Al Jazeera it could not comment on the case as “the matter is before the courts”.
Toronto-based lawyer Prasanna Balasundaram, who represents Mohammed and two other Uighur men who have also applied for family reunification in Canada, told Al Jazeera the evidence Canada is relying on is “very problematic”.
“They’re relying on – at least in part – US intelligence documents that were subsequently shown to be unreliable,” Balasundaram said. “For that reason, we think that the evidence is simply not credible. The allegations are overbroad and ultimately they should not be found inadmissible to Canada.”
Mohammed said it was not until his trial was under way that he first heard of the ETIM.
When he left East Turkestan in 2001, his family warned him against making any negative comments about the Chinese government. “Don’t engage in any political [or advocacy] activities … Think about what will happen to us,” he said they advised him, referring to retaliation.
“It didn’t even cross my mind. I wasn’t going to engage in anything for the sake of my family.”
China’s Uighur population and other ethnic Muslims have faced human rights abuses for decades.
Since 2017, Xinjiang authorities have engaged in a campaign of intrusive surveillance, arbitrary detention, torture, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation, targeting the region’s Muslims, Amnesty International has reported.
Mehmet Tohti, the Ottawa-based executive director of Uighur Rights Advocacy Project, told Al Jazeera that the group does not understand Canada’s justifications for dismissing the three men’s applications for family reunification.
Last month, the US delisted the ETIM from its list of “terrorist organisations”, a move slammed by China. The ETIM is not on Canada’s list of “terrorist entities and organisations”.
“So there’s no [basis] left for Canada, if that was the [basis] for their rejection,” Tohti said, adding that the least Canada can do is offer humanitarian help. “If … you can help those children to wake up with their parents in the morning, that’s the least you can do to help the Uighurs.”
Balasundaram, the lawyer, added that delays in Canada’s decision-making processes have added to the plight of the three men and their families.
“The fact that these men haven’t been able to get a clear answer and make plans with respect to where or how they are going to reunify with their families – it’s been extremely problematic,” Balasundaram said.
‘We have to speak up’
Meanwhile, Mohammed said he last saw his wife and children two years ago, when they came to Albania to see him. Since then, his eight-year-old daughter has become shy with him, which he said breaks his heart.
Some time ago, his wife was also hospitalised. “It broke my heart because even in this free world, I couldn’t be there with her,” Mohammed said.
Despite his personal ordeal, Mohammed said he hoped his case could help draw attention to the plight of Uighurs who are living “in an even more dangerous situation” in China, where he said they are treated “worse than animals”.
The men in his family are “all gone”, he said, either sent to camps or prison.
Amnesty International reported that more than a million ethnic Muslims have been held in camps in Xinjiang, part of an effort by the Chinese government to wipe out their religious beliefs and cultural identity.
Beijing has rejected the allegations, saying its policies in Xinjiang aim to “root out extremism” and that the camps are training centres. It has accused rights groups and foreign governments of seeking to interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
“Faced with undeniable evidence of mass internment, arbitrary punishment and torture, the Chinese government eventually acknowledged the camps, but absurdly claimed that they were voluntary vocational training centres,” Alex Neve, former secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said during a Canadian parliamentary committee meeting in July.
“The true scope and nature of what has been taking place in Xinjiang is not yet fully known because the Chinese government steadfastly resists calls to admit independent monitors into the region,” Neve said.
Mohammed said his sister’s son, for instance, was arrested for having a conversation outside with more than three people. They were caught on camera and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, Mohammed said.
“We have to speak up now,” he said, urging countries to do more to protect Uighurs. “Given what’s happening … to make sure [Uighurs] don’t disappear off the face of the Earth, I ask all these governments including the Canadian government, do what little you can.”