Tuesday, March 7, 2006
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- The prisoner from a western region of China faced serious accusations as he appeared before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he had a much more pressing issue on his mind: where he might go if he were released.
If he were sent back to China, he might be executed, the man, identified only as Mahmut, told the panel at the start of his hearing, according to a transcripts released by the Pentagon.
"I do not want repatriation and am seeking political asylum," he said.
His fear, according to a review of dozens of other transcripts from hearings at the prison in eastern Cuba, was not uncommon among the detainees.
Prisoners from Uzbekistan, Yemen, Algeria and other nations told tribunals that they or their families could be tortured or killed if they are sent home.
Some detainees worry about reprisals from militants who will suspect them of cooperating with U.S. authorities in its war on terror. Others say their own governments may target them for reasons that have nothing to do with why they were taken to Guantanamo Bay in the first place.
A man from Syria who was detained along with his father pleaded with the tribunal for help getting them political asylum -- in any country that will take them.
"You've been saying 'terrorists, terrorists.' If we return, whether we did something or not, there's no such things as human rights. We will be killed immediately," he said. "You know this very well."
The United States has released or transferred 267 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and has announced plans to do the same with at least 123 more in the future.
It is impossible to know how many of the detainees, most held for years now without being charged, fear going home. The U.S. military does not comment on individual cases, and the detainees generally are not in a position to offer any evidence of persecution as they plead their cases before the tribunals.
'I can't go back to my country'
A Saudi identified only as Yasim, who said he attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and was jailed in his country for selling drugs, told the tribunal that after being repeatedly interrogated at Guantanamo, he fears his fellow prisoners as well as others back in Saudi Arabia.
"I can't go back to my country. I have been threatened to be killed by many people," he said according to the transcripts, which the Pentagon released Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act Lawsuit filed by The Associated Press.
A detainee from Uzbekistan told the tribunals in December 2004 that his father and uncles were jailed for their Muslim faith in his native country and said he fears the rest of his family would be tortured if he returned.
The prisoner shrugged off the threat to his own safety in Uzbekistan, where the government has clamped down on Islamic groups that are not sanctioned by the state.
"I'm not afraid to die," he said. "We all belong to Allah, and we shall return to him."
The Uzbek's fate is unknown, as is that of almost every other detainee whose names are no longer blacked out when they appear in the hearing transcripts. The Bush administration has not said who has been held in the prison it opened in January 2002 and does not announce when or where individual detainees are released.
What the Pentagon has said is that 187 prisoners have been released, and 80 others have been transferred to prisons in more than a dozen countries, including Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Russia, Bahrain and Pakistan. An unknown number of these prisoners were later released, but many languish in other jails, again without charges, let alone trials.
"We have no authority to tell another government what they are going to do with a detainee," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico told the AP a year ago when asked about dozens of Pakistani prisoners transferred home for continued detention.
Human rights challenge for U.S.
The personal threats detainees may face after leaving Guantanamo Bay pose a human rights challenge to the United States, which has stopped bringing new prisoners to the camp and is under international pressure to close it altogether.
In Belgium, Socialist Sen. Anne Marie Lizin, who inspected Guantanamo Bay last week for the OSCE trans-Atlantic security organization, reportedly said conditions at the prison have improved and meet European standards.
Still, Lizin said the prison camp should be shut down, backing calls from other organizations including the United Nations, which last month issued an investigation report by five experts accusing the United States of practices that amounted to torture.
President Bush has said that the U.S. transfers detainees to other countries only when it receives assurances that they won't be tortured.
Critics say such assurances are useless.
"This policy of handing over prisoners to countries that the U.S. challenges on their human rights abuses is a sham and it opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy around the world," said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has sought passage of a law that would ban the U.S. from sending prisoners to other countries to face torture.
In the case of one group of prisoners, Muslims from western China known as Uighurs, the United States has struggled to find a solution.
A military tribunal has determined that five are "no longer enemy combatants" and can be released from Guantanamo Bay. The United States agrees they could face persecution in China, but so far has not found a third country to take them.
For now, the Uighurs are being kept at Camp Iguana -- a privileged section of the prison where inmates have unlimited recreation time, televisions, stereos and a view of the Caribbean.
One Uighur told a military tribunal that he feared going back to China so much, he considered trying to convince the panel he was guilty, according to a hearing transcript.
"If I am sent back to China, they will torture me really bad," said the man, whose name didn't appear in the transcript. "They will use dogs. They will pull out my nails."
The Uighur identified as Mahmut was accused of being a member of al Qaeda, which he denied, and of training with a Muslim militant group -- an organization he insisted was dedicated only to establishing an independent homeland in Chinese Turkistan.
"I want to go somewhere where I can live a free life," he said. "That's why I left my country."
Two of the Uighurs are appealing a federal judge's rejection of their request to be released in the United States, where a family in the Washington suburbs has offered to take them in.
"Home is China and in China you disappear into a dungeon and no one ever hears from you again," said their attorney, Sabin Willett. "These guys are not a risk to anyone. They should be released here."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.