Swiss government accepts Uyghur brothers from Guantanamo

For immediate release
February 3, 2010, 6:15 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 349 1496

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) commends the Swiss government for its decision, announced February 3, to grant asylum to Bahtiyar Mahmud and Arkin Mahmud, two Uyghurs who have been detained without charge since 2002 at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The Swiss Federal Council said in an official statement that it made the decision based on humanitarian reasons.

“We welcome the Swiss government’s decision, which will allow Bahtiyar Mahmud and Arkin Mahmud to live free and productive lives,” said Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer. “The government and people of Switzerland have made an extraordinary humanitarian gesture, which is even more remarkable in the face of unrelenting pressure from China not to accept the two men. This gesture finally ends the saga of two brothers who simply sought to live in peace and liberty. I am also grateful to the United States government for not sending them to China, where they would face severe persecution.”

Palau authorities had offered Bahtiyar Mahmud the opportunity to settle in Palau together with a group of other Uyghur detainees in 2009, but Bahtiyar rejected the offer. He opted to stay behind to look after his older brother Arkin, who has suffered from mental illness since arriving in Guantanamo and who was not given the choice of settling in Palau. Arkin had originally traveled to Afghanistan to search for his younger brother at the request of their mother. Bahtiyar had earlier gone to Afghanistan after fleeing a harsh crackdown in East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China.)

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf stated on February 3 that the country had found no problem with the security or health of the two brothers, and indicated that they had expressed a willingness to work once living in Switzerland. On February 2, a regional Swiss government had approved residence permits for the two men.

China’s Foreign Ministry recently issued stern warnings to the Swiss government not to accept Bahtiyar and Arkin, saying that a decision to accept the two men would damage Sino-Swiss relations.

It is unclear when the two brothers will arrive in Switzerland. Five other Uyghurs remain at Guantanamo Bay, following the transfer of six Uyghurs to Palau in November 2009 and four Uyghurs to Bermuda in June 2009.

In 2006, five Uyghur men from Guantanamo were sent to Albania, where four of them have remained. One of the original group of five, Adel Hakimjan, traveled to Sweden, where his sister lives, in 2007, and he was later granted asylum by Swedish authorities. Prior to his flight to Afghanistan, Hakimjan was imprisoned and tortured by Chinese authorities in East Turkestan. Among the four men remaining in Albania’s capital, Tirana, two have entered the restaurant business, and one has pursued an education in computer science at an American-funded university.

At a hearing on the persecution of Uyghurs held in June 2009 in the U.S. Congress, Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight Subcommittee, said that Uyghurs “are a peace loving people who seek only civil rights.” Fellow congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) stated that “Uyghurs are not enemy combatants.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen have repeatedly reiterated the Chinese government’s opposition to the settlement of the Uyghur detainees in other countries, and have urged their repatriation to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The U.S. government has refused to send any Uyghurs from Guantanamo to the PRC, however, due to fears of execution, torture or other ill treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities. The PRC government has in recent years carried out a campaign of extremely brutal persecution against the Uyghur population in East Turkestan in the name of the “war on terror”, regularly jailing and executing Uyghurs accused of acts of “terrorism, separatism and extremism” without providing evidence of their alleged crimes. PRC authorities have widely used accusations of terrorism to brand even peaceful Uyghurs who have expressed disagreement with government policies in East Turkestan.

PRC assurances regarding treatment of the Guantanamo Uyghurs cannot be taken seriously, as torture is rampant in Chinese prisons. Uyghurs in Chinese government custody often suffer from physical abuse and other maltreatment. The U.S. State Department and human rights organizations have documented the extensive use of torture on prisoners and detainees in the PRC, as well as a lack of any independent judicial or legal mechanisms that could provide oversight or redress. Following a visit to the PRC in late 2005, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak reported that torture and ill-treatment remained widespread throughout the PRC, and stated that Uyghurs and Tibetans, among other groups, were among those most frequently subjected to torture.

Background of Uyghurs held at Guantanamo

On October 7, 2001, the U.S.-initiated Operation Enduring Freedom found the Uyghur refugees in Afghanistan in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once coalition bombing started, the twenty-two Uyghurs later detained in Guantanamo escaped to Pakistan. None of these men were picked up on a battlefield, and most of them were captured by Pakistani bounty hunters and sold to American forces for $5,000 each.

Since their detention, the U.S. government has determined that all of the Uyghurs in Guantanamo are non-enemy combatants. As early as 2003, most of the Uyghurs in Guantanamo were cleared for release. In 2008, U.S. congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle called for the release of the Guantanamo Uyghurs to the United States. In a landmark ruling on October 7, 2008 U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina paroled the remaining 17 Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo Bay into the United States. On appeal, a temporary stay was issued on the ruling on October 8, 2008. On February 18, 2009, the D.C. Circuit Court reversed the lower court’s decision. In April, 2009, the Uyghurs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case, and in October 2009 the Supreme Court agreed to hear their appeal.

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