- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A terrorism suspect held nearly three years here says he was fleeing persecution in China when U.S.-backed Northern Alliance rebels arrested him in Afghanistan and handed him over to U.S. forces soon after the September 11 attacks.

At a hearing last week on his status as an “enemy combatant,” the 33-year-old identified himself as an ethnic Uighur, a population of Muslims in western China, where separatist factions are fighting for independence.

The man, along with about 20 other Uighurs held at Guantanamo, poses an awkward problem for the United States, because returning them to their home country if they are cleared means putting them in the hands of a communist regime accused of routinely violating human rights.

The Uighur denied having aided Afghanistan’s Taliban regime or Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist group and said he was captured by Northern Alliance forces shortly after the United States began bombing Afghanistan in late 2001.

Navy Lt. Gary Ross, a spokesman at Guantanamo, said the man “is an al Qaeda fighter in that he stated that he left China during September 2000 and traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, by way of Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan.”

During the hearing, the Uighur admitted to being taught how to assemble and dissemble a rifle in Afghanistan, but denied using one there.

“I was captured in traveling to safety,” he said. “I had no weapon. I am not a soldier.”

He denied involvement with Middle East terrorism, though he admitted to fighting “for independence” from China before traveling to Afghanistan and bringing his family to Kabul in the hope of finding work, months before the U.S. bombing began.

“All Uighurs have one enemy, the Chinese,” he said. “I fight against the Chinese government for independence, that does not mean I am al Qaeda.”

Military officials concealed their identities at the hearing by placing black tape over the names displayed on their uniforms. One official told the Uighur that there was classified information backing up the charges against him.

The Uighur responded: “I don’t know anything about the classified evidence. I can’t make proof without seeing it.”

During his hearing, the man wore a white prison uniform and sat with his hands cuffed in his lap and his ankles chained to a steel bolt on the floor. His left leg, from the knee down, was artificial, although it was not clear when or why it was amputated.

The 2001 State Department report “Patterns of Global Terrorism” ties Uighur extremists to terrorist-training activities in Chechnya and Afghanistan. The report referred to “credible reports that some Uighurs who were trained by al Qaida have returned to China.”

However, the State Department also said previous Chinese crackdowns on ethnic Uighurs and others “raised concerns about possible human rights abuses.”

“If I go home to my home country, I’m pretty sure they will kill me,” the Uighur said at the Friday hearing.

The Pentagon says the Uighurs held at Guantanamo traveled from China to Afghanistan as members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which reportedly has a history of engaging in terrorist-style bombings in its quest for independence from China.

The U.S. military has said it intends to release all prisoners who no longer pose a threat to the United States and no longer have intelligence value in the war on terror. Should the Uighurs be deemed worthy of release, the military might have unique challenges.

“Where do you release them to? That’s the problem,” said one military officer familiar with their cases.

“There’s been more than one who has said ‘I don’t want to go home [to China],’” said another officer.

Lt. Ross referred questions on the matter to the State Department.

A State Department spokesman said at an Oct. 28 press briefing, “The United States continues to explore all options regarding the resettlement of Uighur detainees.”

In a separate hearing on Friday, another Uighur man also assailed the Chinese government, saying the Uighur people have “been under pressure the last 50 years by communist Chinese.”

The Pentagon accuses the 26-year-old of serving as a weapons-training instructor in a Uighur terrorist camp in Afghanistan. The man denied serving in such a capacity and called another Uighur detainee to testify on his behalf during the status hearing.

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