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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?

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The Bush administration worked intensely to find a host country for the five men in order to prevent the appeals court from freeing them on American soil. After more than 100 countries refused, the US found a host in Albania, its small ally in the Balkans, says Sabin Willet, a Boston lawyer who defended the Uighurs.

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Qassim and the four other Uighurs were flown to Tirana on a Friday. The federal appeals court "was scheduled to hear their case on the following Monday," Mr. Willet says. "They were absolutely sent to Tirana to avoid that hearing."

Not safe to go home

Of the 241 inmates still in Guantánamo, the US says that roughly 60 – including the 17 remaining Uighurs, as well as detainees from Libya, Uzbekistan, and Algeria – cannot be returned to their home country because they risk persecution at the hands of local authorities.

"The remaining Uighurs would pose a threat to no one, and Abu Baker is an example," Willet says, referring to Qassim. "He has lived peacefully in Tirana for more than three years, while the other Uighur men in Gitmo have essentially the same background as Abu Bakker and are as peaceful as he."

Human rights campaigners say that when the US has returned former detainees to countries with poor human rights records, they have faced threats, torture, and persecution.

"If I was sent to China I would most likely end up in jail or executed," Qassim says.

Still trapped

Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Albanian society is strongly secular, and conservative Islam is often frowned upon. When Qassim and the other Uighurs arrived, they wore long beards, prompting concern from locals.

"At the beginning, people looked on us as terrorists, but I think the Albanians have come to understand that we were no such thing," Qassim says. "They were suspicious of our long beards, but now the beards have gone and so have their doubts."

One of the Uighurs relocated to Albania has since been granted political asylum in Sweden [read recent Monitor coverage of his story here] but the other four, including Qassim, are doing their best to move forward with life in Albania.

They have worked as volunteers for a local nongovernmental organization, planted trees in the city, and taken cooking lessons at local restaurants. One of the men received a scholarship to study computer science at American University in Tirana.

Qassim hopes to open his own restaurant soon. Although he is settling into calmer times, he says that being separated from his family for a decade has not been easy.

"My wife was pregnant with twins when I left 10 years ago," he says. "I speak to them on the phone, but hardly have any hope left of being reunited."

Qassim has been working to push for the release of the Uighurs still imprisoned in Cuba. He has written President Obama to urge him to release the men. He says he has faith that they will be freed soon.

Their release will be "good news for us, but also for the American people," he says, "because it will lift the doubts that Guantánamo has created about American democracy."