- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

Uighur refugees

Two decades after the death of the repressive Enver Hoxha, Albania is making steady progress toward a more open and democratic society. But as freelance correspondent Bruce Konviser discovered on a recent visit to Tirana, it is not there yet.

Mr. Konviser traveled to Albania hoping to interview five Chinese Muslims who were transferred from the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a day before their case was to have come up in an American court.

It had been determined that the five ethnic Uighurs posed no terrorist threat to the United States, but they could not be sent back to China for fear they would be persecuted there.

Mr. Konviser had arranged for interviews with a lawyer for the men in Albania, but ran into problems when he arrived at the refugee facility where they are being held.

Upon arrival, Ali Rasha, the director of the camp, told Mr. Kornviser that he did not have to authority to allow the interviews. But Argita Totozani, the national commissioner for refugees, later told Mr. Konviser that Mr. Rasha did have the authority.

Mrs. Totozani was very forthcoming, so we were saddened to see an e-mail she sent to Mr. Konviser last week saying we had misinterpreted her remarks and she had been fired as a result.

The gist of the article was that the men were denied the opportunity to settle in the United States and Albania does not appear to be an appropriate home for the Uighurs. While the predominant religion is Islam and Albania is in Europe, there is no one in the entire country who speaks their language and no suitable community into which they could hope to be absorbed.

According to Mr. Konviser’s notes, Mrs. Totozani told him the following:

“Once we carried out the [Uighurs’ application for asylum], their lawyer realized there is no future for these five applicants here in Albania. There is not an Uighur community, as such. And there is no integration possibility for them here.

“They don’t speak any Albanian. They don’t speak any Chinese. And their future is not here. So the lawyers, in conversation with the five applicants, decided to suspend the application. They are trying to find a resettlement somewhere else — in America or Canada.

“We realized their future is not in Albania. So for the best interests of the applicants themselves, and I’m sure they are of the same opinion, because I’ve heard they have relatives in Canada. There is a good community in Canada for Uighurs.”

We apologize

Based on his interview, Mr. Konviser submitted an article that began with this lead:

“TIRANA, Albania — The fate of five former Guantanamo Bay prisoners has been upended by an official admission that the men have no viable future in one of Europe’s poorest countries, where people are more often trying to leave than enter, and where the culture is fundamentally alien to their Central Asian background.”

That accurately reflected what Mrs. Totozani had said. But in the editing process the lead was changed to say this:

TIRANA, Albania — Authorities are looking for a new home for five Chinese Muslims who have been held in a refugee camp in a diplomatic limbo since being transferred to Albania from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last month.

The new lead reads more quickly and rolls off the tongue perhaps a little more easily, and all the quoted remarks in our article were correct. But we seem to have gotten Mrs. Totozani fired by suggesting it was she, not the Uighurs’ lawyers, who was seeking a new home for the men outside Albania.

We could argue — without too big a stretch — that the lawyers representing the Chinese Muslims could be construed to be “authorities” so we were not technically wrong.

But we readily apologize to Mrs. Totozani for the trouble she has suffered and hope she gets back her job.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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