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From Albania, freed Guantánamo prisoner watches detainee debate unfold

As Congress worries about the dangerous prisoners, a Chinese Uighur asks: Why not release those deemed innocent?

By Besar LikmetaContributor / May 23, 2009

In this file photo, Guantánamo detainees pray before dawn near a fence of razor-wire. Across the globe, in Albania, a group of former prisoners has watched the debate over the camp unfold.

Brennan Linsley/AP

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Tirana, Albania

While President Barack Obama made his case Thursday for the transfer of Guantánamo Bay detainees, one of the terror camp's former prisoners was studying recipes in a restaurant kitchen here, doing his best to learn the chef skills that will support his new life in this new land.

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Abu Bakker Qassim is one of five Chinese Uighurs released to Albania in 2005, after US authorities feared that repatriating them to China would expose them to persecution and human rights violations.

Seventeen of Mr. Qassim's Uighur compatriots remain in Guantánamo, even though they have been found innocent of wrongdoing and have been cleared for release.

Although an increasingly heated debate in the US focuses on how to handle dozens of remaining suspected terrorists held at Guantánamo, the Obama administration faces an equally sticky dilemma over releasing the innocent Uighurs.

The president has gotten resistance from Congress, with some arguing that the Uighurs – guilty or not – could pose a security threat. Other countries are skittish of taking the men, worried of angering China, which wants them returned for trial.

A detour in his path

When Qassim left his home in China's Xingjian Province in 2000, his dream was to reach Turkey, or, preferably, Western Europe.

After setting up a shop in Kyrgyzstan for a year with little success, he joined a larger group of 17 would-be migrants as they set off through the neighboring Central Asian republics.

In 2001, just days before the start of a US bombing campaign aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Uighurs arrived in the Afghan city of Jalalabad.

Four days after their arrival, Jalalabad was bombed. The Uighurs left to seek sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan. They could not know that, after an arduous march through the mountains of Tora Bora, the villagers who would greet them warmly on the other side of the border had, only a few days earlier, been blanketed by fliers from US aircraft, promising that whoever "hunts an Arab becomes a rich man."

Though they had no knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, the men were handed over to the Pakistan authorities for the promised reward of $5,000. They would spend the next four months in jail in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before being sent to Guantánamo Bay.

"In Kandahar, the Americans realized we had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but they still shipped us to Guantánamo," Qassim contends. "At that point, we understood that we were flying into hell."

Qassim spent the next five years behind steel bars.

From Cuba to Albania

Qassim and four other Uighurs were not released until May 5, 2006, after a US federal court ruled that their detention was illegal. The release came only hours before an appeals court was expected to order that they be freed.