June 10, 2009
The US government is hoping that Germany will accept nine Uighur Chinese currently being held at Guantanamo Bay. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with the lawyer representing four of the men. She argues that they would integrate well into the already sizeable Uighur community in Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: After a request by the US government the German government is examining a possible repatriation of nine Uighur men currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay to Germany. You just returned from the camp a few days ago and visited four of your clients who belong to this group. Can you describe your clients' current situation?
Seema Saifee: The Uighurs are held in a facility known as "Camp Iguana," which is reserved for men who have been adjudged to be non-enemy combatants and who have been ordered released. Of all the camps at Guantanamo, Camp Iguana has the least restrictions. In Iguana, the Uighurs live and dine together; read books at picnic tables; wash their own laundry; and grow fruit and vegetables in a small garden. Camp Iguana, however, remains a military prison.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do your clients feel about the current debate about them?
Saifee: I spoke with my clients about the statements in the German media labeling them as dangerous. They were disheartened. US courts already ruled their detention unlawful. Federal judges found no evidence justifying their detention. The US government stated in open court there is no evidence they pose a security threat.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think these men would pose a danger to Germany and its citizens?
Saifee: Absolutely not. The best proof is the case of five Uighurs released from Guantanamo to Albania three years ago. The same allegations that the Bush administration leveled against my clients were raised against these five Uighurs. They have been living peacefully in Europe for three years. One was recently granted asylum in Sweden.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would your clients guarantee to the German government and the public that they pose no danger after being repatriated from Guantanamo?
Saifee: All of the Uighurs would provide this assurance if granted the opportunity for an interview. The only danger at issue today is the danger to our values and to our basic human rights in continuing to imprison innocent men.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do they have any opinions about being repatriated to Germany?
Saifee: They view Germany, which has the largest Uighur community in Europe, as an optimal solution to their near-decade long detention. Our clients ask the German government to open Germany's doors to them, and in so doing, to inspire other European nations to give humanitarian protection to the many stateless and stranded refugees in Guantanamo.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do they understand the concerns Germany and other European countries have about the possibility of a repatriation of Guantanamo inmates?
Saifee: The US government cleared every single Uighur for release. A federal judge found the Uighurs' continued imprisonment unlawful. In Friday's press conference with Chancellor Merkel, President Obama said some of the men in Guantanamo "should not have been detained [there] in the first place." It is difficult for our clients to fathom why men who have been found guilty, like Salim Hamdan or David Hicks, have been released and are enjoying their freedom today, but men who have been cleared by the US military, the US government and the US courts remain unlawfully imprisoned.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German government has also internally expressed fears that the repatriation of the Uighur men could endanger relations with China which is asking that the men be sent to China where they would be prosecuted as terrorists.
Saifee: The Uighurs should not be consigned to a military prison for the rest of their lives because China is whispering threats to sever economic and diplomatic ties with any nation that accepts them. These are human beings. They are fruit peddlers, farmers and shoemakers. They are fathers and husbands. Some have young daughters whom they have never met. The fact that no country is willing to extend humanitarian protection to the Uighurs due to politics is an international and moral shame.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The US created the prison camp at Guantanamo. Why then should Germany accept the Uighurs?
Saifee: Guantanamo is primarily the responsibility of the United States. However, Europe has a collective responsibility to help shut down Guantanamo. The Bush administration's "war on terror" was carried out with European cooperation. European nations sent their interrogators to Guantanamo and allowed CIA rendition aircraft to cross over their airspace. Guantanamo cannot be closed without Europe's help.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has always sought a personal connection with Germany to justify repatriation to Germany. Do any of your clients have any such connection to Germany?
Saifee: One of my clients has family in Munich. The rest have the unyielding support of a strong German Uighur community whose presence is crucial to their successful resettlement. The German Uighur community is committed to providing practical assistance -- including housing, employment and linguistic support -- to facilitate the Uighurs' integration into German society.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German Interior Ministry has expressed strong doubts about the nine men and quoted evidence which the US sent to Germany indicating these men have ties to an Uighur extremist organization.
Saifee: None of my clients are, or ever were, members, affiliates, or supporters of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or any terrorist organization. Indeed, they never even heard of ETIM -- or al-Qaida -- until they arrived in Guantanamo.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Uighur dossiers indicate these men lived in terror camps in Afghanistan.
Saifee: This is flatly untrue. Many of the Uighurs lived in an expatriate village in the mountains. They engaged in construction jobs -- building kitchens and bathrooms -- and received food and shelter in exchange. A few lived in houses in Kabul, with family or with Uighur refugees from China. There were no Taliban or al-Qaida there. The Uighurs currently living peaceful lives in Albania and Sweden lived in the same village.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The dossiers indicate some of them have received weapons training there.
Saifee: None of the Uighurs obtained "weapons training" or "terrorist training." The Bush administration characterized activity as mundane as looking at a rifle as "weapons training." The Uighurs had never touched a weapon before in their lives. In Afghanistan, nearly every single home contained at least one rifle. So, some were shown how to take apart and reassemble a single rifle. Some fired two or three bullets at a target. If this constitutes "weapons training," then millions of Americans and Europeans would be terrorists.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many politicians and members of the public do not understand why your clients were in Afghanistan in the period following 9/11.
Saifee: My clients fled their homeland to escape religious and political persecution by the Chinese government. They were unable to find protection in neighboring Central Asian countries, like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which had formal extradition agreements with China. Many wished to travel to the West, but did not have proper travel documents or much money to travel. Afghanistan offered a temporary refuge from the invariable risk of extradition they faced in Central Asia, and its borders were essentially open. The legitimate reasons for making this journey are documented by the US State Department.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But how did they end up at Guantanamo then?
Saifee: In October 2001, the US military commenced operations in Afghanistan. The military began littering Pakistani and Afghan soil with bounty leaflets promising "wealth and power beyond your dreams" for the handover of "Taliban." In exchange for these rewards, local tribesmen were turning over anyone they could find. When the Uighurs fled the escalating hostilities hoping to find safety, Pakistani villagers and Afghan warlords turned them over to the US military for upwards of $5,000 each. Soon after, the US military told the Uighurs they were mistakenly picked up and would soon be released. This was nearly seven years ago.
Seema Saifee, 29, is an associate with the US law firm Kramer Levin. She has been a member of the team representing four Uighur Chinese men held at Guantanamo Bay since 2006 and has visited her clients at the US military prison seven times.