x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

From Guantanamo to tropical paradise

Four Uighurs detained at Guantanamo for nearly seven years are now living on Bermuda.

Khaleel Mamut, a former Guantanamo detainee, at a restaurant near the cottage where he is staying in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Khaleel Mamut, a former Guantanamo detainee, at a restaurant near the cottage where he is staying in Hamilton, Bermuda.

BEIJING // When Khaleel Mamut fled his native Xinjiang province in western China to escape what he called Chinese oppression, he could never have envisaged ending up living on a sub-tropical island paradise. Yet after a secret flight last month from Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, where he spent almost seven years in US custody, that is where he and three of his fellow Uighurs are now calling home and will remain for the foreseeable future. Still considered a terrorist by the Chinese government, he is greeted with handshakes and hugs on the island, where he and his friends are surviving on US government stipends until they find work. "Wherever we go local people see us and say 'Welcome to Bermuda, you deserve to live here. We hope you live here peacefully,'" Mr Mamut, 31, said in a telephone interview from Bermuda. "Since seven years, no country stepped forth to accept us except Bermuda, and we will never forget their good deeds." It is something of a fantasy ending to a torrid story that began in 2002 when Mr Mamut and 21 other Uighurs fled Xinjiang for the inhospitable mountains of Afghanistan. It was intended to be the first stop, he said, on a journey they hoped would eventually take them to the United States. Here Mr Mamut and his friends sought to find ways to defend themselves and their Turkic-speaking Muslim community from the Chinese government. Some said they learnt how to use AK47 assault rifles from local Afghans. Hiding out in the mountains, said Mr Mamut, they were captured in 2002 by Pakistani bounty hunters, who sold them to US forces for US$5,000 (Dh18,400) a head. The US and the Chinese governments accused them of attending militant training camps in Afghanistan and being part of a global jihad. The Uighurs protested their innocence, saying they had not even heard about the September 11 attacks until they arrived in Cuba. "We heard something about it but it was when we got there [to Cuba] that American interrogators explained to us in detail what happened," Mr Mamut said. But their claims were dismissed. What followed was close to seven years in the notorious Guantanamo Bay military prison where Mr Mamut - like many detainees who have been through the prison - said he was tortured and abused. He also spent a year in solitary confinement. There was also Chinese involvement in their detention. Last month, US politicians called for an investigation into why the Bush administration allowed Chinese agents in 2002 into the base to interrogate the detainees. In 2007, the Pentagon said the Uighurs were not "enemy combatants" and would be relocated to a suitable third country that was willing to take the men. China, which still considers the men terrorists, was angered by the decision and according to Uighur activists did everything in its power to prevent the move. "The key reason why the United States could not easily resettle these Uighurs in a third country is largely due to China's political and economic pressure and even threats," said Alim Seytoff, vice president of the Uighur American Association in Washington. Mr Mamut said that he could forgive the US for what it did to him, but not the Chinese government. "It is impossible to consider ourselves Chinese; we belong to the Turk Uighur group of Muslims. In our country since the start of history we Turk people have lived traditionally with our own habits and customs," Mr Mamut said. Violence last month in Xinjiang between Uighurs and Han Chinese, which left 197 dead and more than 1,000 injured, has highlighted the situation of the Uighur population in China, who want an independent homeland in Xinjiang, or what they call East Turkistan. The Chinese government, however, has no intention of relinquishing the resource-rich region and considers separatist calls equal to terrorism. "I do not believe there is a terrorist unit in East Turkistan and I consider it an excuse as a reason for the government to continue hardline policies," said Mr Mamut. "They killed protesters wildly and arrested innocent people and put them in prison." Uighurs in exile claim 10,000 ethnic Uighurs have gone missing in Xinjiang since the riots on July 5. The Chinese government holds Rebiya Kadeer, the leader of the Uighurs American Association, responsible for instigating the "separatism terror and extremism" in Xinjiang. As for Mr Mamut, while he is concerned for his community in Xinjiang, he is now looking for work in his new home and said he has no intention of returning to China. "The Chinese leadership has blamed the three powers separatism terror and extremism for the unrest in Xinjiang. I do not believe there are terrorists in Xinjiang," Mr Mamut said. dvincent@thenational.ae