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Date Posted: 10:34 26/11/2003

The Uighurs of Guantanamo

The US may release a number of Chinese citizens currently being held at Camp Delta

THE CHINA News Agency yesterday drew attention to the presence of Chinese 'enemy combatants' at Camp Delta in Guantanamo. It seems that 'quiet' discussions between China and the United States are currently underway, and that the US are seeking assurances that the prisoners will not be mistreated if they are returned.

The prisoners, all ethnic Uighurs, were described in the Chinese report as members of the 'East Turkestan' movement, which seeks independence for the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang in the country's remote west. The Foreign Affairs spokesman, Liu Jianchao, was asked at a press conference yesterday to confirm whether or not the issue would be raised by Premier Wen Jiabao during his visit to the United States, and whether it was true that the issue of human rights had been raised.

Liu Jianchao said that close dialogue was being maintained with the United States on the issue. About the question of possible mistreatment were they to be returned home, Liu said that, well, first of all, it's a hypothetical question, and second, well, you shouldn't feel that China's authorities are going to engage in the abuse of human rights as soon as you mention criminal suspects. Abusing criminal suspects is not government policy, he stressed. In fact, it is illegal.

The UK government has been lobbying the US for its own citizens at the camp to be returned to Britain. It was suggested, however, that their fate – discussed during Bush's visit to London last week - was complicated by the fact that the UK government could not even guarantee that they would stand trial after their release.

That doesn't seem to be an issue with the Uighurs, who will certainly feel the full weight of the Chinese authorities should they ever get home.

The fact that we know nothing about the 'terrorists' makes it harder to judge. It isn't at all clear whether or not they have been accused of playing a part in any of the bombing campaigns in Xinjiang, or if their potential release from Guantanamo implies innocence.

Some are worried that the inclusion of the Xinjiang 'East Turkestan' movement in the global roster of banned terrorist organizations was nothing more than a sop made to the Chinese in exchange for acquiescence at the Security Council. It has also been said that no organization bearing that name had ever conducted any kind of terrorist activity within China's borders, and that its name has been invoked in order to justify repressive activities throughout Xinjiang. Nevertheless, movement through those porous border regions in Western China is relatively easy. The Uighurs at Guantanamo were, after all, arrested in Afghanistan.

An official who was responsible for checking out suspicious behaviour in Shanghai following 9-11 once told Running Dog that the problem in Xinjiang is that there is no way of telling who is a genuine Chinese citizen and who has just fled from Kazakhstan across the border. It’s chaos out there, he said.

Despite US claims that the 'war on terrorism' does not give carte blanche for certain disreputable governments to mete out almighty vengeance on some of its more rebellious citizens, it has certainly given the member-states of the 'Shanghai Cooperation Organization', consisting of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, an opportunity to conduct joint 'clean-up' operations in the border regions. In the old-fashioned traditions of realpolitik - the sort of traditions that landed us with the problems of Saddam and al Qaeda in the first place - many of the governments of central Asia are using the war on terror, and the military support of the US, to engage in very nasty behaviour indeed.

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