EXCLUSIVE: Guantanamo's Innocents: Newly Released Prisoners Struggle to Find a Home
Men Without a Country 'Disappointed' in America After a 'Pointless' Four Years at Gitmo
By LARA SETRAKIAN and the ABC News Law & Justice Unit
May 23, 2006 --
Their story may be the strangest one you'll hear out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Even after being cleared of any wrongdoing, five innocent men were kept captive at the detention center at Guantanamo. Today, these men who started out in China and ended up in Cuba are now free and in the Eastern European country of Albania, the only country that would take them. They spoke to the ABC News Law & Justice Unit in their first American interview.
'In The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time'
Many of Guantanamo's prisoners proclaim they're innocent. What's different about these men, Muslims from China's Uighur minority, is that even American authorities said they were innocent, referring to them as "no longer enemy combatants" or "NLEC." Nevertheless, they remained imprisoned more than a year after their names were cleared -- after the U.S. government determined they did nothing wrong and posed no terrorist threat to America or Americans.
Why were they kept at Guantanamo so long after they were deemed innocent? Simply put, no country -- including the United States -- would accept them. They couldn't go back to China because they believed, as did the American government, that as Uighur Muslims they faced persecution by the Chinese government. With nowhere else to turn, they were taken in by Albania, a country with a Muslim majority.
Even as they struggle to find a place to call home, they are working to move past the ordeal of incarceration.
"We were isolated from the rest of the world," said Abu Bakkir Qassim, speaking through a translator.
Speaking for the group, he told ABC News: "We spent a pointless four-and-a-half years in Guantanamo."
In December 2005, a U.S. federal judge said of the men's detainment, "This indefinite imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay is unlawful."
Michael Sternell, a lawyer who represents three of the men on behalf of law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis and Frankel told ABC News, "These men have suffered more than anyone should ever have to in a lifetime in just the last four-and-a-half years. They were detained simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Q&A: Life at Guantanamo and Beyond
Weeks after their release from Guantanamo, the Uighur men were just sitting down to lunch when they told the ABC News Law & Justice Unit about their experience.
The following is a transcript of the conversation with Qassim, who spoke through a translator on behalf of the entire group.
Q: What was Guantanamo like?
A: Guantanamo is like a hell where there is no justice or respect for human dignity. Our life there was very, very miserable, especially the last one year after being told that we are innocent and still living behind wired walls. We feel confused, frustrated and tired. I would call the worst period of time of my four years incarceration in Guantanamo.
The saddest part of the whole thing is that after being cleared, no longer enemy combatants, or innocent. Being innocent people, we were told that we have no rights but shelter, food, water and a place to pray. Given that, that place is not the normal, usual prison. So I would say that it is a hell.
Q: Did anyone ever tell them why they were there or did any of the guards there express guilt about them being there?
A: They didn't tell us why we were at Guantanamo, but the only thing they kept telling us, the U.S. government, the interrogators, the guards, understand our situation and they know that we shouldn't be there. In the meantime, they keep telling us that we will not be sent back to China and the U.S. government is looking for a third country to settle.
Q: So there was some sympathy, you think? Some guilt expressed?
A: No, I don't think so. Sympathy or regret never was expressed by anyone from the guards.
Q: After being cleared as non-enemy combatants, were they allowed to contact their families or use the telephone?
A: No. Only one exception. One of the five men were able to speak to a sister who lives in Sweden.
Q: What was your interaction like with their fellow prisoners? What did they think of each other?
A: If you're in a cage, or in those camps, camp one, camp three, you're allowed to speak to your neighbor, cellmate. But if you're outside, on the playground, you're not supposed to talk. So the interaction with the other inmates is very, very limited.
Q: Was there a hardest day, a moment when you'd most lost hope?
A: After we were handed over to American authorities in Kandahar. We thought it was good, Americans uphold people's rights and protect them. When we realized where we were going -- to Guantanamo -- that was the hardest moment.
Q: Last week, the U.N. came out with a report saying that Guantanamo should be shut down. What do you think?
A: In my view, as someone who spent four-and-a-half years in prison in Guantanamo, I believe the United States should charge the men who are in Guantanamo or release them, so I don't believe this prison could be kept as it is today.
Q: So it shouldn't be shut down or it should be shut down?
A: My honest answer would be yes, of course.
Q: How long has it been since you've seen your families?
A: Most of us left in 1999. [By] last summer, when our American lawyers get involved in our case, our family members pretty much thought that we evaporated from the face of the earth.
It is very difficult. We are alive but not being able to talk to our loved ones and let them know that we are thinking about them and missing them, caring about them, telling them that everything is going to be all right. Some of us have kids [at] home, whom we haven't seen yet. I even have two children, a daughter and a son, that were born after I left China. My wife was pregnant when I left my homeland.
Q: How do you like Albania so far? What is life like there?
A: We are very pleased that the Albanian government and the Albanian people opened their hearts and welcomed us. Despite the fact that all the strong, powerful, democratic countries are able and capable of accepting us, they did not do that. We are having some problems ... there are no Uighurs in Albania, and we don't speak the Albanian language.
It would have been much easier if we stayed closer to the Uighur community so that they can come and help us to forget our life, the time that we spent in Guantanamo and help us to heal the wounds that were created in the last four-and-a-half years of incarceration. Albania is a great people [sic], it's very nice here. However, we don't see any future culturally and economically.
Q: If not Albania, where do you want to be?
A: Were hoping that the United States government would recognize the mistake that it has done and accept, allow us to enter the United States. U.S. government captured us, U.S. government incarcerated us, locked us up in prison, and U.S. government said that we were not a threat and should be released.
Uighur-Americans came forward, made an offer to the United States government to accept us into Uighur-American society and community. They even went into the courts and contacted the lawyers and wrote a letter to the U.S. government officials asking them to consider releasing us into the United States. Unfortunately, it did not happen, a rather disappointing decision.
However, other countries such as Canada, Germany, Norway, Turkey would also be good countries for us to settle because of their sizable Uighur populations. Uighur culture is an interdependent culture where we always need to see our friends and sit down and talk with them. And especially in our situation, we need a lot of people around us helping us to forget this bitter life experience that we spent wasted in Guantanamo for the last four-and-a-half years.
Q: Are you angry at the United States?
A: I wouldn't call it angry. I would rather describe it as extreme disappointment. The Uighur people see the United States as a country that promotes democratic freedom and protects human rights of the people, particularly people like the Uighurs, my people. We look up to the United States as a source of hope, inspiration for our liberty. And because of that image that we hold of the United States and what we have experienced in Guantanamo, we feel extremely disappointed.
We are so fortunate to have a group of good-hearted American lawyers, who never gave up on us, and freed us. We would never be here if we didn't have the good American lawyers who helped us to be free. And for that we are very, very thankful.
Q: What were you doing when you were apprehended in Afghanistan? There are U.S. officials who have said you had associations with the Taliban or al Qaeda or received weapons training. What do you say?
First of all, let me correct. I was not captured in Afghanistan. I was picked up by a Pakistani bounty hunter in Pakistan and sold to the U.S. military for $5,000.
You may wonder why I went to Pakistan, but I originally, initially, was hoping to get to Turkey to join the Uighur community in Turkey. My friend in Pakistan advised me that there was a Uighur village in Afghanistan where I can stay while my visa was processed and they told me they will call me and I can come back and get my passport and go to Turkey to earn more money and support my family. So basically my departure from China was seeking greater economic and political freedom to be able to live well.
Q: Did you ever receive anything like weapons training?
I reject the motion that I ever received military training. When I went to Afghanistan, I find that quite compelling to use that opportunity to study the Koran ... Uighurs are physically Muslim, but they don't really know how to read [religious texts]. That environment provided me an excellent opportunity, so I spent most of my time reading the Koran, learning Islamic, taking Islam, learning more about Islam.
Afghanistan is a country ... where you can see guns everywhere. Out of my curiosity, I learned how to use them. It doesn't mean that I was seeking weapons training. I told the U.S. government that just learning how to use that machine gun does not make me a dangerous person or a person who would attack someone or gets me the title that I received military training.
Q: Do you want to go back to China? If not, why not?
A: No -- we don't want to go back to China. Chinese had been persecuting, discriminating and doing horrible things on our people. And recently, they've been calling anyone who disagrees with the Chinese either terrorists or separatists.
The second reason that we cannot go back is that the United States government invested so much energy and time to let the world know that anyone and everyone in Guantanamo is terrorist. [After] four-and-a-half years at Guantanamo Bay ... you earn a title "terrorist." And the Chinese strongly believe it.
Response from Washington
In earlier statements, the State Department has defended its treatement of the five Uighur men.
In February 2006, a representative told ABC News: "It is the longstanding policy of the United States not to transfer a person to a country if it is determined that it is more likely than not that the person will be tortured. We are looking into resettlement outside China."
Jeng-Tyng Hong in New York contributed to this article.