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?

Brennan Linsley/AP
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.
Besar Likmeta
Abu Bakker Qassim, a Chinese Uighur who was freed from Guantánamo in 2005, has tried to rebuild a new life as a chef in 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.

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.

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.

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."

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