In an odyssey spanning 10 years and three continents, a simple merchant's dream of a better life turned to a nightmare following 9/11.
Adil Hakimjan's journey led from northwest China's Xinjiang Province to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and from there to four years' imprisonment at Guantánamo. After being released from the US terror prison camp in 2006, the Chinese Uighur was sent to Albania and eventually sought asylum in Sweden.
Although he's out of Guantánamo and has been cleared of any wrongdoing by US authorities, his case is far from being settled. Mr. Hakimjan now sits in legal limbo in Sweden, with the Chinese government eager to see him deported and Sweden's Migration Board appealing an earlier decision that granted him asylum protection.
"In three months, it's been three years since we were released from Guantánamo," Hakimjan told the Monitor recently, referring to four other Uighurs released with him from Guantánamo. "Still, I cannot start my own life."
Seventeen other Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) remain imprisoned at Guantánamo, even though they have never been charged and were officially cleared for release in September 2008. Hakimjan's case illustrates the diplomatic and legal minefield facing the Obama administration as it attempts to find new and safe homes for the men without further enraging China, which views them as domestic terrorists.
Seven of the Guantánamo Uighurs could soon be released into the US, according to a source quoted Friday by the Los Angeles Times.
From China to Sweden, by way of Cuba
Hakimjan fled China in 1999 because of what he describes as severe persecution. In a lengthy interview, he detailed the arrests, beatings, and torture that precipitated his journey.
Bishkek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, was his first stop. He said he intended to move his family there, but after a year-and-a-half, the Kyrgyz government began deporting Uighurs back to China. In July, 2001, Hakimjan and a friend then struck out for Turkey, never imagining Guantánamo would soon be their destination.
After leaving Bishkek, the pair went first to Pakistan, then they crossed into Afghanistan to wait in a Uighur village until documents arrived that would allow the men to cross Iran in order to reach Turkey. Their waiting spot was near the Tora Bora cave complex, which was bombed by the US in December 2001.
After the US began military operations in the area, Hakimjan and 17 other Uighurs fled the mountains for Pakistan, where they were captured by bounty hunters who had been promised $5,000 for every captured "terrorist."
After spending six months at a US prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Uighurs were transferred to Guantánamo. Hakimjan says the first six to eight months were the toughest – he was completely isolated and unable to communicate. Later, he was transferred to a shared compound.
Freed, but without a country
Although a US military tribunal officially cleared Hakimjan of any wrongdoing in March 2005, it wasn't until another year passed that he and four other prisoners were chained, hooded, and flown to Albania for release.
In November 2007, after traveling to Sweden to speak at a human rights conference, Hakimjan filed for political asylum. His claim was initially denied by a Swedish migration board, but he was victorious in Swedish Migration Court in February. That made Hakimjan the first of those cleared of wrongdoing and released from Guantánamo to be granted political asylum within the European Union (EU).
China has repeatedly expressed its "concern" to the Swedish government over Hakimjan's asylum bid, according to Swedish media reports. If Hakimjan is returned to China, he could face further persecution.
According to a recent Amnesty International report, in Xinjiang Province "authorities continued to use the US-led 'war on terror' to justify harsh repression of ethnic Uighurs." The report also notes an increasing number of Uighurs, a Turkic, largely Muslim people, had been "forcibly" returned to China from abroad, and face "the death penalty and possible execution."
Hakimjan says his children have begged him not to return to China out of fears that the authorities "will arrest and torture me again."
Hakimjan's two brothers-in-law had died in prison before he fled Xinjiang. He says one was executed and the other died from inadequate medical treatment. Hakimjan says he was arrested three times between 1997 and 1999, describing each as lasting between one and two weeks and accompanied by torture, including electro shock.
China wants Uighurs returned
Zhou Lulu, press officer for the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm, says that the reason behind China's contacts with Sweden was "our concern about combating terrorism effectively. Those Chinese terrorist suspects in Guantánamo should be returned to China for a fair trial," adding that such repatriation "is an international obligation for all countries, including Sweden and the US."
The US has refused to turn over the Uighurs remaining in Guantánamo to Chinese authorities.
Ms. Zhou also noted that "sovereignty and territorial integrity is clearly put in the UN Charter. No government wants fragmentation of its own state."
The case is currently awaiting a decision by Sweden's Migration Court of Appeal on whether to hear the Migration Board's arguments.
Sten De Geer, Hakimjan's Swedish attorney, says the Chinese Embassy's "warning Sweden against giving Adil asylum, in my view, explains the incredible zeal and effort by the Migration Board to secure Adil's deportation to Albania."
The case hinges upon whether an asylum seeker who is allowed to stay in one "safe country" is eligible to choose another. Typically, the answer is no. But the Migration Court found that due to the nature of Hakimjan's arrival in Albania, his circumstances "cannot be compared with the fact that a refugee ought to seek asylum in the first country of arrival during his/her flight," noting that Hakimjan's stay in Albania was effectively "forced" upon him.
A sister of Hakimjan's lives in Sweden – a factor the court also cited in its decision – as does a small Uighur community. In Albania, the only other Uighurs are the remaining four from Guantánamo. Hakimjan explained that he feels 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."
The legal affairs director of Sweden's Migration Board, Mikael Ribbenvik, however, emphasized that "there's no possibility" in Swedish law for Hakimjan to receive asylum. He added that the Migration Court has "totally misjudged the case."
European groups urge Sweden to resist China's efforts
With Guantánamo's closing ordered, and the EU presently formulating policy to provide resettlement for some inmates, Hakimjan's case has drawn attention at both the European Parliament and Council of Europe (COE).
Thomas Hammarberg, the COE's Commissioner for Human Rights, says China's action over Hakimjan's case amounts to "interference into a judicial process of another country" that is "inappropriate and unacceptable."
Mr. Hammarberg adds that "such activities by the Chinese authorities underline the importance of granting asylum to Adil Hakimjan."
At the European Parliament, Liberal Democrat Sarah Ludford, of Britain, says that she has recently received assurances regarding Hakimjan from Cecilia Malmström, the Minister for Europe of the Swedish government.
Baroness Ludford says that Malmström offered "robust assurance" that Sweden's refugee process is "based on a human rights evaluation," and is "not vulnerable to political pressure from China or elsewhere."
China has repeatedly asserted that the Uighurs taken into custody by the US were all members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an organization the US State Department listed as a terrorist group in 2002. However, questions exist as to whether ETIM existed as China described it.
According to Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College and a widely acknowledged authority on the Uighurs, few experts "had ever heard of" ETIM until after China began trumpeting the group as a threat. He also noted that the majority of information on ETIM "was traced back to Chinese sources," providing for "a real credibility gap."
Professor Gladney says that some believe ETIM to be part of a US-China quid pro quo, where China supported the "war on terror," and "support of the US for the condemnation of ETIM was connected to that support."