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  Unintended Uighurs
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Unintended Uighurs

by John Hickman
Despite all that might have been learned about the risk of blowback, the puerile logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” still has many adherents on the American Right.
Although it is easy to forget in the strange first decade of the 21st century, warning against the unintended consequences of rash government action was once a favorite theme of conservatives. Prudence was what traditional conservatives counseled. Since September 11, 2001, however, the neo-conservatives have been in command of the American conservative movement and they think prudence an antique virtue. Who needs prissy caution when you have “a world to win, an empire to build?” The problem is that there are always unintended consequences.

The situation of the ethnic Uighur Chinese nationals languishing at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base or dumped in Tirana, Albania, is a splendid example of what comes of the neo-conservative commitment to unrestrained U.S. presidential power and contempt for international law. The 22 Uighurs who ended up as prisoners in Guantánamo Bay were among the hundreds of ordinary foot soldiers and young men in the wrong place at the wrong time who were made to serve as visual “evidence” that the Bush administration really had won a military and political victory against the enemy that had caught it sleeping on the job on September 11, 2001.

Later, on closer examination, the Uighurs, like so many of the other prisoners who, like them, had been hauled halfway around the planet, proved to be neither dangerous, nor worth prosecuting, nor sources of useful intelligence. Unburdening itself of this initial evidence of victory in its War on Terror has been a headache for the Bush administration.

The most fortunate of the prisoners who ended up in Guantánamo Bay won enough celebrity back home to embarrass their governments into negotiating their release. Diplomatic pressure from London resulted in the release into British custody without charges of most of the British nationals: Jamal Udeen al-Harith (Ronald Fiddler), Ruhal Ahmed, Tarek Dergoul, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul in 2004; Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg in 2005; and Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil Al Banna in 2007. Public campaigns in Britain continue to lobby for the release of Omar Deghayes. Paris lobbied successfully for release of Mourad Benchellali, Nizar Sassi, Brahim Yadel, Imad Achab Kanouni, Khaled Ben Mustapha, Redouane Khalidthough and Imad Achab Kanouni into French custody in 2005. The first six French nationals were then tried on charges of terrorism while the seventh was freed. Although anxious to please Washington, even Canberra joined in by securing the release of Mamdouh Habib in 2005 and David Hicks in 2007. David Hicks was released to Australian custody serve out his plea-bargained U.S. sentence under house arrest.

Public pressure in Canada for the release of Canadian national Omar Khadr has been mounting now that the U.S. military commission case against him has fallen apart and Ottawa reproached Washington for the Kafkaesque nightmare of extraordinary rendition experienced by Canadian national Maher Arar. German prosecutors issued arrest warrants for the 13 suspected CIA agents implicated in the extraordinary rendition of German national Khaled al-Masri.

Like the celebrity prisoners fortunate enough to be citizens of advanced industrial states, the Uighurs also have a government that wants custody. Unlike the celebrity prisoners, however, they are decidedly reluctant to go home. Where repatriation of the Australian, British, Canadian and French prisoners meant return to a normal legal system, repatriation of the Chinese nationals would mean transfer to a legal system criticized not only by international human rights organizations but also by neo-conservatives in and out of government in the U.S. Although experience has shown that the neo-conservatives are perfectly comfortable with transferring prisoners taken in extraordinary renditions to the custody of governments like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco or Syria that practice brutal physical torture, they are unwilling to transfer custody to a Chinese government which might commit comparable acts in the name of Chinese national security and communism. Remember that before the neo-conservatives did battle with the Islamist terrorists that their policies helped to create during the Reagan administration, they were committed anti-communists. Despite all that might have been learned about the risk of blowback, the puerile logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” still has many adherents on the American Right. Thus Uighur prisoners who ended up in Guantánamo Bay as “the worst of the worst” could be deemed potential victims of Chinese communist brutality.

Notwithstanding anxiety about their fate if repatriated to China, the Bush administration refused to allow them to be settled permanently in the United States. More than 100 other countries also passed on the administration’s generous offer to transfer custody. In the end, only Albania, one of the few countries on the planet whose people haven’t gotten the joke yet, was willing to take some of the Uighurs. Ironically, Albania was also the only communist country in Europe to ever ally itself with China when Mao Zedong was in charge of his half of the Sino-Soviet split.

So Ayoub Haji Mamet, Adel Abdul Hakim, Abu Bakker Qasim, Ahktar Qassim Basit and Ahmat Adel were dumped in Albania on May 5, 2006. Beijing was understandably unhappy with that outcome, with the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson saying, “These people accepted by the Albanians are by no means refugees but terrorist suspects, and so we think they should be returned to China.” To hear the Chinese government complain, you might suspect that they had reason to worry about an Islamist and separatist insurgency within their borders.

Combatant Review Panels have cleared 15 of the remaining 17 Uighurs still at Guantánamo Bay, where they seem likely to stay for the foreseeable future. Life for the five Uighurs living in Albania is reportedly grim enough to discourage the others from joining them.

The neo-conservative insistence on political advantage in the short term has resulted in an absurd dead-end for everyone concerned.
This situation is the unintended consequence of imprudent action. The neo-conservative insistence on political advantage in the short term has resulted in an absurd dead-end for everyone concerned. Of course the numbers of people involved are relatively small. Larger numbers die in individual bombings on an astonishingly regular basis in Baghdad. Yet a reasonably competent presidential administration would not have allowed a problem this intractable to develop. Once again, the neo-conservatives have painted the U.S. government into a policy corner.
John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at

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This story was published on June 14, 2007.

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