The Uighur dilemma

My good friends Dana Rohrabacher and Newt Gingrich are arguing, albeit at long distance, over the guilt and potential fate of some of the prisoners still being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Rohrabacher believes the Uighur prisoners still at Guantánamo aren’t terrorists at all, while Newt is convinced they are just too dangerous to be released.

I admire both men but, though they differ on few issues, usually find myself agreeing with Newt rather than Dana on those few. However, this time the evidence (or lack thereof) suggests that it is Dana who has the best of the argument.

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Until Chinese security forces began bludgeoning Uighurs during protests that turned into riots in western China, few Americans had heard of these people trapped inside China and enduring long-term persecution, job discrimination and a campaign by Beijing to destroy their ancient culture. The Uighurs are Muslims who, like the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan followers, would rather govern themselves than take orders from their less-than-friendly communist overseers.

The only Uighurs most Americans had heard of at all were the 17 being held at Guantánamo as “enemy combatants” captured on Afghan battlefields in the opening days of the war on terror. It turns out they weren’t captured on the battlefield at all, but apprehended or perhaps kidnapped by Afghan tribesmen who delivered them to U.S. forces in return for bounties we were paying at the time for the capture of known terrorists.

We shipped these Uighurs off to Guantánamo, though we now admit there was never any evidence suggesting they bore us ill will or participated in the battle being waged at the time. It turns out their beef was with Beijing, not Washington. Like the Tibetans who enjoy a better press here, the Uighurs have been under constant assault from the Chinese. Some want independence for their ancestral home, while others seek better treatment from the communist regime.

Objections to even the most cursory review of the charges justifying the incarceration of these and other “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo were dismissed on the grounds that those held there were “the worst of the worst.” These were men, we were told, who were simply too dangerous to be released so long as the war on terrorism raged.

Newt certainly subscribes to this view. Though some argue in light of the evidence that while this was true of some detainees it wasn’t and isn’t true of all, Newt seems to believe that no mistakes were made. He goes further, in fact, in arguing that regardless of whether the Uighurs we bought in 2002 were after us or not, they were trained by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and are therefore incredibly dangerous customers. The prisoners themselves deny this, arguing that they’d never even heard of the organization until they arrived at Guantánamo.

The Chinese want them back. If they get them back, torture them and ultimately execute them, Beijing will have demonstrated rather powerfully to the Uighurs and other minorities that it does them no good to look to the West for support now or ever again. It turns out that we, in our constant effort to please our Chinese creditors, actually contemplated shipping them home but ultimately decided the televised executions that might follow wouldn’t go over well here.

The problem stems from the fact that after Sept. 11, U.S. officials essentially decided that to avoid dealing with the contention that “one man’s terrorists are another’s freedom fighters,” we would take the position that anyone fighting or offering armed resistance to an incumbent government anywhere would or could, for U.S. purposes, be classified as a terrorist. This delighted despots everywhere, but nowhere more than in Beijing. Chinese authorities immediately asked that Uighurs resisting Beijing be classified as terrorists, and the U.S. complied.

The result was that the Uighurs ended up at Guantánamo and we now have no idea what to do with them. We can’t send them home, and most nations don’t want them because then they will become targets of Beijing’s ire. Having managed to convince not just Newt but millions of Americans that there are no innocents at Guantánamo, we can’t release them here in spite of the fact that “the worst of the worst” weren’t distinguishable from the hapless and the innocent and have turned out to be mere pawns in a game they never agreed to play.



Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.