Sunday, July 13, 2008

Free at Last, Free at Last – or Not

By William Fisher

As a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. military improperly labeled a Chinese Muslim held at Guantanamo Bay an “enemy combatant” and ordered that he be released, transferred or granted a new hearing, an influential Congressional committee delivered a scathing criticism of China’s closed trial of 15 co-religionists on terrorism charges -- resulting in the immediate execution of two defendants, three suspended death sentences, and ten sentences to life imprisonment.

The Chinese Muslims are known as Uighurs, part of a Muslim minority from western China. They have been reliably reported to have been systematically persecuted by Chinese authorities.

The legislators’ charges came from leaders of the Congressional Human Rights Committee (CHRC), Co-Chairmen Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf. The two lawmakers condemned “the harsh pre-Olympic crackdown” in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. They also expressed their strong concern over credible reports detailing abuses of due process and rule of law in the July 9th closed trial.

In a statement, Rep. Wolf said, “The Chinese government should not be permitted to use the War on Terror or Olympic security as a front to persecute the Uighurs. These ‘trials’ appear to be no more than a ploy to oppress religious freedom and ethnic minority groups.”

Rep. McGovern added, “China must allow minimum standards of international law, and must open trials to independent observers. China clearly fails in its obligations under international law and certainly fails in its commitments to improve human rights as the host of the 2008 Olympic Games.”

The group called on the Chinese government to “uphold the commitments they made to the international community when they were awarded the privilege of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games and improve their deplorable human rights record.”

The Uighurs also made other news in the U.S. last week, when a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. military improperly labeled Huzaifa Parhat, a Chinese Muslim held at Guantanamo Bay, an “enemy combatant.” The Court ordered that he be released, transferred or granted a new hearing. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington marks the first time a federal court has weighed in on the issue of a Guantanamo detainee’s classification and granted him the opportunity to try to secure his release through civilian courts.

A lawyer for Parhat, who has been kept virtually incommunicado for more than six years, said he and other members of Parhat’s legal team would seek to have him freed immediately.

Parhat is one of 17 Uighur Muslims still being held at Guantanamo even though the U.S. government acknowledges they pose no threat.

The decision was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the George W. Bush administration and its efforts to defend the military commissions process at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The order came just days after the Supreme Court ruled that the approximately 270 remaining detainees at Guantanamo have a constitutional right of habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge their detention in federal courts. That ruling marked the third time since 2004 that the nation’s highest court has limited the government’s power to use the military to detain and prosecute foreign nationals at Guantanamo.

The appeals court specified that Parhat could “seek release immediately” through a writ of habeas corpus in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision. Parhat’s case and scores like it had been put on hold until the Supreme Court made its ruling on the habeas corpus issue.

“Now all of these cases have been revived and this is the first case to move forward,” said David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University. “And here is somebody that the military has been holding on to for six years and the federal court now says he shouldn’t have been held in the first place.”

He added, “Absent this independent judicial review, he might have been sitting there for another 10 to 15 years. Now he has a chance to find freedom,” said Cole, one of the nation’s preeminent constitutional scholars.

Two years ago, five Uighurs were released from Guantanamo to seek asylum in Albania, after the United States said it could not return them to China because they would face persecution there. The released Uighers live in an Albanian refugee camp, unable to speak the language and forbidden to work.

All of 17 Uighurs being held at Guantanamo have been cleared for release as part of annual reviews. The government says that, while they are still designated enemy combatants, they are not considered significant threats or to have further intelligence value.”

The Uighurs are part of a large group of Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release, but nonetheless remain in detention. The State Department claims it cannot find countries willing to accept these detainees. U.S authorities have balked at allowing the Uighurs into the United States.

Parhat, 37, and the other Uighurs were captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. He insisted he sought refuge there from an oppressive Chinese government and never fought against the United States. The U.S. government has produced no evidence suggesting that he ever intended to fight, but it designated him an enemy combatant because of alleged links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group demanding independence from China that Washington says has links to Al Qaeda.

While refusing to return the Uighers to China, the U.S. did allow Chinese officials to visit Guantanamo to interrogate the Uighur detainees.

Despite the court’s ruling, Parhat’s future is unclear. And while the U.S. government ponders its legal options, says Human Rights Watch, Parhat and his 16 fellow Uighurs continue their life in a cage.

Parhat wakes at 4:30 or 5:00 A.M., prays, goes back to sleep, walks in circles -- north, south, east, west -- round his 6-by-12 foot cell for an hour, goes back to sleep for another two or more hours, wakes and reads the Koran or a magazine (written in a language that he does not understand), pray, walks in circles once more, eats lunch, prays, walks in circles, prays, walk in circles, goes back to sleep at 10:00 p.m.