How a group of men from China’s Uighur community were sold in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo as terrorists.
Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.
A film by Patricio Henriquez
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China’s western autonomous region of Xinjiang is home to the country’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
But many have fled China in recent years to escape persecution from Chinese authorities who have banned some of their cultural and religious traditions.
In October 2001, a group of Uighurs seeking refuge in Afghanistan and Pakistan, faced a new and unexpected misfortune. Their quest for a better life ended in incarceration.
In reaction to the 9/11 attacks, the United States started a military intervention in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda fighters, and the local population was encouraged to report and hand over terrorists in exchange for large sums of cash.
Twenty-two Uighur men were captured and sold as “terrorists” to the US. They were transported to Guantanamo Bay, the notorious US military prison, where they were imprisoned for many years, initially without any form of judicial process, and were later proved innocent.
From China to Guantanamo, Cuba, this film maps the incredible story of three of these “prisoners of the absurd”, linked to worldwide terror networks through no fault of their own.
MEET THE PRISONERS:
Abu Bakker Qassim
Qassim became involved in “Islamic Advocacy” after the February 5, 1997 Ghulja demonstration in Xinjiang, China, and was arrested in June 1998.
“They accused me of being part of the separatist movement. And they jailed me for seven months.”
After his release, Qassim decided to try find an Uighur village in Afghanistan. Many Uighurs fleeing China chose to go to Afghanistan because it is one of the few countries in the region that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with China. He found the village near the mountains a few hours outside of Jalalabad. This village was later named as a Taliban training camp by the US military.
“All of us who stayed there had great respect for the Afghan people, and the Taliban, because no one else provided refuge to the Uighur people. You didn’t need a passport or anything else. Even if you were not making any money you still had three meals a day. I’m still grateful to them. No other country has given Uighur refugees anything like that,” says Qassim.
After the events of 9/11, the US offered large cash sums to the local population for any information on terrorist activity or for handing over suspected terrorists. During this time, China asked the US to add the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation to the terror watch list, classifying the Uighur separatist movement as a terror group.
After hiding in caves and spending months walking around the Tora Bora mountains, Qassim entered Pakistan, but was quickly captured and handed over to the US forces.
“The Pakistani government sold us as terrorists to the Americans for $5,000 each,” he says.
On June 8, 2002, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay prison. While there, a Chinese delegation was allowed access to his personal information and were present during interrogations.
“Then they wanted to take pictures of us. I refused, as did all the others. Two American soldiers came in and used a choke hold so the Chinese could take my picture.”
Eventually Qassim went in front of the Combatant Status Review Board and was classified as a non-combatant. He and three other Uighur detainees were accepted into Albania.
“They brought us to a police station next to the airport. They took off the plastic handcuffs. Then they gave us water to drink. We started to feel more relaxed when they took off the handcuffs. We thought: we are free.”
Qassim says that the experience changed him forever. “Over there, those four years in prison ruined my future. In Albania, although most people know what we’ve been through, some still look at us suspiciously. And it’s the same all over the world. The word “terrorist” is written on my forehead. Often I feel people are guarded when they talk to me. Even if I wanted to start a new business, I could not do it easily.”
Ahmat was one of the many people arrested after the February 5, 1997 Ghulja demonstration in Xinjiang, China.
“Inside, they took our fingerprints. Then they tortured us, beat us with metal clubs, covered us with ice. They brought dogs to bite us. I saw women, even young girls in there.”
Abdulahad fled to a Uighur village in Afghanistan, but was then captured by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s soldiers. He was taken to Qala-i-Jangi prison, and was one of the few men who survived the US attack now known as “the battle of Qala-i-Jangi”.
Badly injured, he was taken to the Sheberghan hospital, and then at the end of January 2002, transferred to Guantanamo Bay. There, doctors had to amputate his injured leg.
“The soldiers said they had to amputate my leg. In such circumstances, you want to talk to your loved ones, seek their advice. I looked around. I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t understand anything anyone said. I was all by myself. After thinking about it for a while, I gave them my consent.”
After being classified as a non-combatant, Abdulahad waited years before the US was able to find a country to accept him and five other Uighurs – the west Pacific island of Palau.
“Once we arrived here, really, we felt we were free. But still we did not have a real taste of freedom. We were supposed to get a passport. We only have an ID. We are not allowed to claim citizenship. Although we have some rights, we have no nationality. We are not citizens of any country,” says Abdulahad.
Khalil Mamut left China in August 1998 to study in Pakistan. In 2001, he was caught by Pakistani soldiers and sold to the US army as a “terrorist”.
He was taken to Kandahar prison, and on June 10, 2002, transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Mamut spent part of his detention in Camp 6, one of Guantanamo’s harshest prisons.
“There was nobody to talk with, no book to read if I wanted to read. If I wanted to write, there was no paper and no pen. I had nothing then. I kept going over what had happened to me, what would happen to me. It was quiet inside. I would think about my whole life again and again. In one day, you can play your life over many times.”
After being classified as a non-combatant, Mamut and three other men were provided with refuge in Bermuda.
“We arrived in Bermuda on the morning of June 11. I was amazed about one thing: I was taken to Guantanamo on June 10, 2002, and I got out of it on June 10, 2009. Exactly seven years of my life had passed over there. Those were supposed to be the beautiful years of my life. Seven years of my time. I turned 25, 26, 27 years old there. The beautiful time of my life, my beautiful years,” says Mamut.
“I am a victim of manipulations between politicians. They were playing with me like a pawn on a chessboard. And they did the same with my brothers.”