Uyghurs in Bermuda Still Targets of Misconceptions

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October 4, 2012

Matt James, Intern, Uyghur Human Rights Project

The latest to emerge on four Uyghurs released from Guantanamo to Bermuda is an interview by Maureen Callahan with three of the four men for an opinion piece in the New York Post. After 9/11 the US military held 22 Uyghur men at Guantanamo, all of whom were found to be non-enemy combatants. The Uyghur American Associaton welcomed their release from Guantanamo to Palau, Albania and Switzerland, as reported in 2010, and since then two more men were released to El Salvador earlier this year.  Now, only 3 remain, petitioning for release to the US.   The others must adapt to life in their new homes.

For the three-year anniversary of their transfer, Callahan spoke with Khalil Mamut, Abdullah Abdulqadir, and Salahidin Abdulahad.  Calling them “prisoners in paradise”, she describes their difficult process of acculturation in Bermuda. In spite of finding housing and employment, and even meeting wives online, they have failed to achieve passports or statehood, and have trouble making ends meet with Bermuda’s high cost of living. In a report last year, UHRP found that legal trouble is a common obstacle for Uyghur refugees in Europe, but the situation for the men in Bermuda is especially complicated.  Their legal trouble results from the deal to release them between the US and Bermuda’s governments without British consent, even though Bermuda is a British territory. For Great Britain, granting the men citizenship would set an unwanted precedent for its territories.

An unfortunate reaction to Callahan’s report came from the conservative press. John Hinderaker, a lawyer and one of the founders of the conservative Power Line blog, recently posted a response to Kallahan’s blog in which he asserts that the men were actually terrorists aiming to attack China, and mocks their discomfort in Bermuda as the “first circle of what, for them, is Hell in the Western world.” Hinderaker assumes an anti-Western attitude for the men, which was not confirmed by the US judicial process and their own previous statements to the press.  Their desire to marry Uyghur or other Muslim women after their release, and even frustration with the job market and high cost of living, hardly supports the claim that they are anti-Western.

Most importantly, the men are not terrorists. In fact, many of the Uyghurs who had gathered in Afghanistan were refugees seeking to migrate to Turkey via a dangerous trafficking route through Iran to the Turkish-Iranian border. Their only combat training was a one-time chance to drill with an archaic Kalashnikov and the camp itself was more of a migrant center where Uyghurs spent their time building necessities like latrines and discussing ways to go to Turkey, not plotting attacks on China.  They were ordinary Uyghurs who took advantage of porous borders to escape Chinese oppression, and wound up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Uyghurs of Guantanamo Bay highlight the complex nature of transnational migration and the difficulty of conducting warfare in a region with porous borders and lawless conditions. Hinderaker simplifies this into another alleged case of the Obama administration’s softness on radical Muslim militants who hate the West. He ignores the issues of British-Bermudan governance, the challenges of life in asylum, and the very real repression facing the men in China. This kind of attitude, which fails to distinguish anti-American Islamic militants, sets back Uyghur-American dialogue and fuels misconceptions about the Muslim world.