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Life After Guantanamo: Why the Media's Happy-Ending Narrative Is Totally Bankrupt

The transfer of four Uighur prisoners to Bermuda has been treated like a happy human-interest story, but the truth is far darker.
 
 
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"From Gitmo to Paradise!"

So came the news via MSNBC last week, echoing the upbeat tone of so many covering the sudden transfer of four Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Bermuda. Broadcasting images of beaming bearded men in bucolic surroundings, the happy-ending narrative offered by the media was perfectly captured in a June 14 New York Times story: "Out of Guantanamo, Uighurs Bask in Bermuda."

"Almost exactly seven years after arriving at Guantánamo in chains as accused enemy combatants, and four days after their surprise predawn flight to Bermuda," the Times reported, "four Uighur Muslim men basked in their newfound freedom here, grateful for the handshakes many residents had offered and marveling at the serene beauty of this tidy, postcard island."

The Times followed the Uighurs as they went about "smelling hibiscus flowers" and "luxuriating in the freedom to drift through scenic streets and harbors," painting a portrait of wide-eyed disbelief.

"I went swimming in the ocean for the first time ever yesterday," Salahidin Abdulahat, age 32, said. "It was the happiest day of my life."

We're supposed to love these stories, tales of epic injustice overturned. Sweeter still if the aggrieved parties -- in this case, four men who for the most part spent the better part of their 20s wrongfully imprisoned by the United States -- have nothing but peace in their hearts.

"Before, we were asking, 'Why are the Americans doing this to us?' " Abdulahat recalled. "Now, he said, with others nodding in agreement, 'We have ended up in such a beautiful place. We don't want to look back, and we don't have any hard feelings toward the United States.' "

It should come as no surprise that the newly freed Uighurs -- Abdul Nasser, Huzaifa Parhat, Abdul Semet (also known as Salahidin Abdulahat) and Jalal Jalaladin (also known as Abdullah Abdulquadirakhun) -- have been treated as a heartwarming human interest story. (The next step would seem to be their own reality TV show.)

But once the reporters are gone and the euphoria wears off, where, exactly, will the Uighurs be? How will they make a living? Will they be allowed to travel? Will they ever see their families again?

None of these questions have clear answers. Bermudan authorities say the men will have guest-worker status and may be able to apply for citizenship, at which point they will be able to travel. (Although not necessarily to the United States.)

This might come off as a ridiculously sweet deal to such craven politicians as Newt Gingrich -- who wrote last month that the Uighurs are "trained mass killers" who want to "establish a separate Sharia state" -- or the ignorant pundits at Fox News (who have balked at the fact that the Uighurs are under "basically no surveillance" in Bermuda -- "They don't have any ankle bracelets!"). But for those who understand that the Uighurs were never "enemy combatants" to begin with -- the Bush administration acknowledged this as early as 2003 -- packing them off to a tropical island with little more than what they had on them when they were arrested seven years ago sounds a lot like exile.

Granted, the men appear to be resilient: "The four men want to open up the island's first Uighur restaurant," MSNBC's Contessa Brewer reported this week. "They say they will serve noodles and lamb."

But, she added, wryly, "It might be tough without any money. When they were sent to Bermuda, they got to keep their watches and copies of the Quran -- that's it."

Locked Up in Limbo

The sudden release of the four men was not an act of political altruism. More like desperation.

The Obama administration has spent much of the past few weeks stepping up talks with foreign governments, trying to persuade them to take in prisoners from Guantanamo. In the past week alone, press reports have revealed that Italy, Spain, and Hungary are stepping up to take a handful of prisoners.

But the Uighurs have posed a particularly complicated challenge since the days of the Bush administration. As a persecuted Muslim minority from China's western Xinjiang province, they have been denied asylum by virtually every nation the U.S. has approached to take them in, due to an unwillingness to anger the Chinese government.

(How the Uighurs ended up at Guantanamo in the first place is a winding, rather unbelievable story.) Handed over to the U.S. military in 2002 by Pakistani bounty hunters, they have been accused of training with al-Qaida in order to take up arms against China. Not true, the Uighurs have insisted.

In a 2006 op-ed published by the New York Times, former Guantanamo prisoner Abu Bakker Qassim wrote: "I was locked up and mistreated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time during America's war in Afghanistan. Like hundreds of Guantánamo detainees, I was never a terrorist or a soldier. I was never even on a battlefield. Pakistani bounty hunters sold me and 17 other Uighurs to the United States military like animals for $5,000 a head. The Americans made a terrible mistake."

Resettling the Uighurs in the United States has proved to be a political impossibility, nevertheless, thanks to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. When a community in northern Virginia that is home to a Uighur immigrant population volunteered to take them in, local lawmakers protested. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.,who has been a critic of China's record against the Uighurs, nevertheless told Fox News that "a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist." Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., took the same line, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos in May, "I don't believe they should come to the United States."

"Not to the United States and not Virginia," Stephanopoulos said.

"No, I don't believe so," said Webb.

In the end, the story of how Bermuda came to house the four Uighur men is itself something of a mystery -- and at the center of a diplomatic flap between the U.S. and Britain. (Bermuda is a British territory.) British authorities claim that they were not told the "secret deal" had been struck with the premier of Bermuda, Ewart Brown.

"The Americans were fully aware of the foreign policy understanding we have with Bermuda, and they deliberately chose to ignore it," one senior British official said. "This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally."

Someone might tell the U.S. and the U.K. to set their imperial egos aside. The real injustice is that the innocent Uighurs remained imprisoned for years after they were no longer deemed to be guilty of anything.

"When we get a little removed and get some perspective on this, we all should feel a large sense of shame," Guantanamo attorney Sabin Willett said. "What makes us so pathetic that we can't resolve our own problems and have to send them to islands? Shame on us."

Willett, the Boston-based lawyer who represented the resettled Uighurs, recently shared the details leading up to his clients' release in an interview with the American Lawyer. He only discovered that the U.S. government had decided to send his clients to Bermuda at the end of last month. Before Willett told his clients, however, he took "some precautionary steps."

"Over the years, I have figured out who the monitoring guy at the Pentagon is that listens in on our calls," says Willett. "So I called him up and said, 'If this leaks, I'll know that you were the source.' " That might have done the trick -- there were no leaks prior to the landing in Bermuda. (Willett, who signed on to represent some of the Uighurs held at Guantanamo in 2005, took a similar hard line with his clients. He warned the detainees that if the news got out before they landed on Bermudan soil, they might be stuck at Guantanamo for several more months.)

Willett's clients arrived in Bermuda before 6 a.m. on June 11th.

"Nobody's slept for two days, everyone's giddy, the guys are just so thrilled," Willett said. "Something I didn't understand until now is what it must have felt like to be the world's outcasts, the people that nobody wanted. This little island wanted them, and they feel immense gratitude."

Haunted by Guantanamo

Not all those released from Guantanamo in the past few years have felt so grateful.

In November 2003, a handful of newly freed prisoners spoke to the BBC's correspondent in Peshawar. One, Abdul Raziq, a Pakistani, told the BBC, "I have no complaints against the Americans or the Afghans, and I don't seek any compensation from anyone. I leave it to Allah to reward me." But he said he has vowed never to speak English again, having been singled out for mistreatment while imprisoned in Afghanistan because of it.

Others, the BBC reported, "are not so sanguine about the time in Guantanamo Bay."

"Abdul Mulla, for one, is extremely bitter."

The taxi driver from Thana village in Malakand does not even want to talk about it.
"What purpose will it serve? You are all infidels," he tells me.
And 24-year-old returnee Shah Mohammed says the experience has left him mentally disturbed.
He says he tried to commit suicide four times in Camp Delta.
"The mental distress, along with worries about home made me try to take my life," he says.
And he says the mental wounds have not healed.
"I wake up in the middle of the night scared to death. I find it difficult to forget my recent past."

That was the fall of 2003. The Uighurs have spent six years longer at Guantanamo, where at least five prisoners have committed suicide.

Their own experiences are sure to haunt them. In their first interview since being released, the men described how they were held in solitary confinement for their first year in U.S. custody, spending 22 hours a day in a windowless cell.

They also describe the harrowing experience of being visited in 2002 by a delegation of officials and interrogators from China, who questioned them for hours on end. According to one of the former prisoners, Salahidin Abdulahad, "the Chinese delegation treated us very badly."

"They brought me out and interrogated me for six hours straight with no food or rest.

"They took me back to my cell, and I was extremely tired. But then they came straight back to my cell and took me out for another six hours of interrogation. It went on that way for one-and-a-half days."
Mr. Turahun added: "When the Chinese came, they wanted to take my picture, but I didn't want them to, because I was afraid they would harm my family.
"But one of the American guards grabbed my beard, and the other held my hands behind my back so they could take the picture."
The men did not want to talk about their families.

Ryan Grim, a reporter for the Huffington Post who interviewed the Uighurs over the phone, reported that the 18-hour interrogation sessions took place in "extreme cold."

"Ablikim Turahun, one of the freed Uighurs, endured such an interrogation. He said that after six hours, he was sent back to his room to eat, but before the meal came, he was taken back to the Chinese for another six hours. He was then sent back to his room and given a meal. Just as he was falling asleep, he was brought back again for a third straight six-hour session in extremely cold temperatures."
"When the Chinese delegation came, we didn't really want to meet with them and answer their questions. They brought us out anyway. They made threats, turned down the temperature in the room, made the room very cold."

The interrogation of the Uighurs by Chinese officials has been an open (if underreported) secret for years. In 2008, a report was released by  Department of Justice Inspector General Glenn Fine that confirmed that, according to a footnote on Page 183:

While the Uighurs were detained at Camp X-Ray, some Chinese officials visited GTMO and were granted access to these detainees for interrogation purposes. The agent stated that he understood that the treatment of the Uighur detainees was either carried out by the Chinese interrogators or was carried out by U.S. military personnel at the behest of the Chinese interrogators.

Susan Manning, an attorney representing a number of Uighur prisoners, told ABC News that the report proved U.S. personnel "are engaging in abusive tactics on behalf of the Chinese."

"Why are we doing China's dirty work?" Manning said. "Surely we're better than that."

The plight of the Uighurs has become an issue on Capitol Hill. This week, Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., along with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., held a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight Subcommittee on the persecution of the Uighurs by the Chinese government. According to a staffer in Delahunt's office, more hearings are on the way, including on the question of why the Chinese government was allowed to visit the Uighurs at Guantanamo at a time when nobody but the Red Cross had ever been allowed in.

Life After Gitmo

News of the Uighurs' release to Bermuda arrived at the same time that it was revealed that the Pacific island nation of Palau has agreed to take in the remaining Uighurs -- 17 total -- at Guantanamo. As the Obama administration continues its negotiations with other countries trying to get them to take in the rest of the prisoners who have been cleared for release, major questions remain about what will await them when they arrive.

In 2007, the New York Times painted a grim portrait of the life of five Uighur prisoners who were resettled in Albania, only to arrive to a "squalid government refugee center on the grubby outskirts of Tirana, guarded by armed policemen."

The men have been told that they will need to get work to move out of the center, they said, but that they must learn the Albanian language to get work permits. For now, they subsist on free meals heavy with macaroni and rice and monthly stipends of about $67, which they spend mostly on brief telephone calls to their families. But some of the men have already lost hope of ever seeing their wives and children again.
"We suffered very much at Guantánamo, but we continue to suffer here," Ahktar Qassim Basit said. "The other prisoners had their countries, but we are like orphans: We have no place to go."

If the Uighurs in Bermuda harbor no ill will toward the country that imprisoned them all these years, the difficulty of adjusting to a new life in a place so foreign and distant from their homeland might change down the line.

Beyond the images of the four former prisoners swimming, fishing and eating ice cream lies a cruel reality that has been all but eclipsed in the past week, and which must not be forgotten. It's not just the seven years of incarceration these men suffered at the hands of the U.S. government, but the real, lasting -- and as yet, largely unknown -- effects their imprisonment will have in the years to come.

Angela Amel, a social worker at The Innocent Project who works with exonerated prisoners who are transitioning back into their lives after being wrongfully incarcerated, says that the isolation and the lack of family support will be one of the hardest obstacles to overcome.

"I think it's incredible," she says. "It completely compounds it. People who have their family and loved ones when they come out are the ones who are going to come out OK. Who you were going in and what you have when you come out are going to really determine how you do." Not having family or a support network, she says, "makes it a million times worse."

What's more, the stigma of having been branded a terrorist is sure to follow them wherever they go, just as those who are wrongfully imprisoned often find themselves regarded with suspicion.

"I don't think people are going to believe that they are entirely innocent," Amel says. "And that really compounds the issue, the tendency for people to say, 'Well, if they weren't guilty of that, they were guilty of something.' 

"And then, of course, how to get a job, how to start over," Amel adds.

While the U.S. has provided compensation to countries that agree to take in prisoners from Guantanamo in the past, it has not provided much in the way of support for the men themselves. Once they are resettled, they're pretty much on their own.

"We've never talked to them," a U.S. diplomat in Tirana, Albania, told the New York Times in 2007. "We don't monitor them. They're not our citizens, and there is no reason for us to."