Filed under: December Volume 1 - 2008, International, National | Tags: Ricardo Urbina, Tallahassee, Uighur, Uyghur
By Bashirah A. Malik
Islamic Post Staff Writer
In Tallahassee, Florida, Presbyterian Rev. Brant Copeland, Muslim Imam Naeem Harris, and Reformist Rabbi Jack Romberg stood side by side, united in their efforts to accommodate three of the 17 Uighur Muslims who had been accused of state terrorism in China, and held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Uighurs are seeking autonomy of the Xingjian province, formerly known as East Turkistan, which was occupied around 1755 by the Chinese. Although the majority of the people living in the province are Muslim, the Uighur struggle has been likened to that of Buddhist Tibet.
“We’re going to show the people of Tallahassee and Florida when people of faith come together for the community good what happens,’’ Salah Bakhashwin, a longtime capital resident who spread the word through the city’s 3,000-member Muslim community, told the Miami Herald.
But the hopes of religious leaders of settling 3 of the 17 men in Tallahassee, who had already been cleared for release from Guantanamo, were dashed in the Washington DC Circuit Court this autumn in a split 2-1 decision.
The panel sided with government lawyers who had argued against the men being released. The Justice Department attorneys, representing the executive branch, are preparing a full appeal to keep the men detained at Guantanamo.
A US Federal Judge had previously ordered that the group of Muslims held at the detention facility in Guantanamo since their capture in 2001 should be released into freedom in the United States due to the threat of imprisonment and torture if they were to be deported back to China.
But the men have been held for years in legal limbo at the prison camp in Guantánamo.
In what has been described as a landmark decision, United States District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said there was no evidence the detainees, who have been held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years, were “enemy combatants” or a security risk, and that the U.S. Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause. Their lawyers stated that the U.S. authorities have cleared the Uighers of suspicion of being terrorists, and that the men have been cleared for release since 2004.
The prosecution, led by Justice Department attorney John O’Quinn, however, has argued that Judge Urbina did not have the authority to order the Uighurs released into the United States, but that the men also could not be returned to China where they are still considered terrorists and may be tortured.
The Chinese government continues to demand that the Uighurs be placed in Chinese custody. It is well known that Beijing has waged a relentless campaign against many Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang, in far western China, who are seeking greater autonomy and independence for the region. “We hope the U.S. will take our position seriously and repatriate these persons to China sooner rather than later,” stated Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
Judge Urbina called the ongoing detention unlawful with a reminder that the U.S. constitution prohibits indefinite imprisonment without charges.
Lawyers for the detainees said Urbina’s ruling marks the first time a federal court has ordered the release of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay into the United States. An attorney for some of the prisoners’, Sabin Willett said, “We are thrilled. Justice has too long been delayed, but today we saw a great judge give a principled and just decision.” Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch said, “The government should not drag its feet, but should immediately release these men from their unlawful confinement at Guantanamo.”
In 2006 the United States allowed five Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo to seek asylum in Albania. Thus far the U.S. has been unable to find a country willing to accept the remaining Uighurs.
Religious and community leaders had already found housing and work for three of the men in question. The community’s consensus to take in the Uighurs could have been, “an opportunity to show a lot of non-Muslims the real religion of Islam,” in the words of Imam Naeem Harris.
With the efforts shown thus far, it may still be.