Diplomatic memos reveal Chinese effort to block Guantánamo prisoner's asylum bid

The US has cleared the Uighur prisoners at Gitmo of wrongdoing, but China calls them "terrorists." Seventeen Uighurs are seeking political asylum in Sweden, Canada, the US, and Germany.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Newly revealed documents provide a rare glimpse at the diplomatic pressure used by China in its unsuccessful efforts to stop the Swedish government from granting asylum to a Uighur prisoner released from the Guantánamo prison.

Resettling the remaining 17 Uighur prisoners is widely viewed as a critical milestone in the Obama administration's plan to close the prison camp. If Sweden's example is any indication, the imprisoned Uighurs present a foreign-policy Gordian knot.

The men are members of a largely Muslim minority in western China. They have been ruled innocent, but are considered terrorists at home. And while they are among the 30 of Guantánamo's 241 remaining prisoners who have been cleared for release, they remain behind bars.

Recommended: Where do things stand at Guantánamo? Six basic questions answered.

The formerly classified Swedish government documents show how foreign-policy concerns could be contributing to their ongoing detention. Given China's rising economic and political clout, much could be at stake for countries who agree to offer homes.

The memos from the Swedish Foreign Office note how China viewed it as " 'impossible to understand' that Swedish authorities had given a visa for this terrorist," and how "very 'unsatisfied' " China was that Sweden's Migration Court had granted Adil Hakimjan protection.

The memos detail contacts between the Chinese Embassy and Sweden's Foreign Office, and highlight escalating Chinese pressure involving the potentially precedent setting case of Mr. Hakimjan, a Uighur merchant. Hakimjan's Stockholm attorney, Sten De Geer, recently obtained the documents under Swedish freedom of information law.

China's impatience with Hakimjan's asylum bid was obvious in the memos. "The Chinese Embassy in Stockholm has, a number of times, contacted the [Swedish] Foreign Office, both in this case and also referring to the more general question if Sweden is going to receive any Uighurs when the camp at Guantánamo is going to be closed," wrote the Foreign Office's China desk director in one of the documents.

Hakimjan, who was captured by a bounty hunter in Pakistan in 2001, was released from Guantánamo in 2006 and now lives in Sweden. A court there upheld his bid for political asylum in April.

Germany is now considering a US request that it accept nine of Guantánamo's Uighurs. Seven others are being considered for resettlement in the US.

China wants Uighurs returned for trial

Although the Uighurs have been cleared of wrongdoing, China views them as domestic terrorists and wants to see them returned for trial.

Following Albania's acceptance of five Guantánamo Uighurs in 2006, Albania suffered " 'a big diplomatic and economic hit,' " according to a Pentagon official quoted in a Feb. 18 Los Angeles Times story. The Times's Pentagon source added that "no one wants to do that again."

China denies that it unduly pressured the Swedes. "Saying so-called Chinese pressure is a block on the closure of Guantánamo Bay is ridiculous," Zhou Lulu, press officer for China's Stockholm embassy, said in an interview. "As we said, the Uighur terrorist suspects should be returned to China for a fair trial, but not sheltered for further terrorist activity, nor detained without trial – that is an international obligation for all countries."

Addressing the Chinese position, Amnesty International spokeswoman Sharon Singh observed that "since the Uighurs have been persecuted in the past, it's a bit dubious that the Chinese would hold fair trials for these men."

According to the documents, China repeatedly branded Hakimjan and the other Guantánamo Uighurs as "terrorists." Two of the memoranda, dated from February, detailed China's requests that information it provided on Hakimjan be turned over to Sweden's Justice Department, which was stated as done.

Subsequently, in late April, Swedish courts ultimately upheld Hakimjan's bid for political asylum.

Mr. De Geer, Hakimjan's attorney, says the memos underscore the "fierce urgency for now is that Europe loudly reaffirm its unwavering commitment to a fundamental value system based on respect for, and defense of, human rights." He further observed that the "imminent fate of Guantánamo's Uighurs will constitute our litmus test."

For Washington, the resettlement of those found innocent of wrongdoing, yet remaining at Guantánamo, is key to the prison's closure.

The Obama administration's intent to resettle seven Guantánamo Uighurs in the US has raised domestic debate, with critics casting Uighurs as Islamic jihadists intent on forming terror cells. This is despite the fact that the Bush administration cleared all of the Uighurs of wrongdoing in September 2008.

Canada was earlier approached by three Guantánamo Uighurs seeking protection, with the outcome of the cases uncertain. Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade declined to comment on the status of the cases.

Seema Saifee, attorney for two of the Uighurs seeking sanctuary in Canada, says that the "determination to offer refugee protection to the Uighurs must be made according to Canadian law and regulations, not politics."

Roots of China's angst over the Uighurs

Uighurs are facing similar issues regarding their homeland, China's Xinjiang Province, as those endured by Tibetans, says Central Eurasian expert Gardner Bovingdon. He says China's playing of the terrorist card is part of "its strategy for exploiting the 'global war on terror' to serve its particular political purposes in Xinjiang, and also abroad – wherever Uighurs exist in diaspora."

Professor Bovingdon, of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, explains China's efforts as attempts "to nullify Uighur political activism inside, and outside, Xinjiang." He views such efforts as part of a campaign "to delegitimize" Uighur groups, noting Chinese attempts to "depict Uighur separatists, and even Uighur dissidents" who are nonviolent and do not explicitly advocate independence for Xinjiang, as "terrorists."

China's actions arise from a concern over the possibility of a "post-Soviet 'breakup,' political domino effect that involves foreign intervention," with this potential scenario occurring "in the name of humanitarian protections," Bovingdon says, adding that China is concerned that this could conceivably provide a shield for Uighur or Tibetan secession.

China's Stockholm embassy spokesperson previously told the Monitor that no government "wants fragmentation of its own state."

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, sees Chinese "pressures" as emphasizing the "need to ensure that the other Uighurs – those still in Guantánamo as well those four remaining in Albania, – are protected from the risk of being deported to China."

Reflecting widely felt European sentiment, Commissioner Hammarberg then addressed the implications presented by the long incarceration of men found to be innocent.
"US authorities have the primary responsibility for correcting the damage they brought on these persons, and should offer them permits to stay. However, European countries should be prepared to receive some of these wrongly detained people as well."

Referring to US Attorney General Eric Holder's recent request that Germany accept nine of the Guantánamo Uighurs, Hammarberg says, "It is encouraging that Germany appears to be ready to welcome a group of them."

Jens Ploetner, spokesman for the German Foreign Office, addressed the issue of Chinese "pressures" only by saying that the "German Foreign Office is aware of the Chinese concerns." He added that Germany is "at the beginning of an internal discussion within the German government and with our partners," adding, "no concrete decision has been taken yet."

Mr. Ploetner also added, however, that as Germany was among the first of those to call for the closure of Guantánamo, "it is therefore only logical that we are now looking into ways how to support the efforts of the new US administration to close the camp."

Enduring stigma from Guantánamo

Hakimjan, the Uighur who is now trying to rebuild his life in Sweden, says he feels blighted by the terrorist label. After he was released from the prison, he said he sometimes felt as if someone "put a hat on my head with the writing 'terrorist,' and it's extremely difficult to take off this hat and throw it away."

In an interview with the Monitor following Sweden's recent decision to provide him with protection, one of the first things Hakimjan said was that "I hope the world now realizes I'm not a dangerous person and that my friends are not, as well."

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