US Freeing Guantanamo Inmates to Torture?

Uighur separatists from China are likely to be mistreated if they are returned to Beijing’s custody from the Guantanamo Bay naval base as the US administration is reportedly considering, says the group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

More than a dozen members of the Muslim ethnic group are being held at the base in Cuba with other detainees suspected of belonging to the al-Qaeda terrorist group and the Taliban, former rulers of Afghanistan.

New York-based HRW says the Uighurs, who were captured by US forces in Afghanistan two years ago, could face torture and execution if repatriated to Beijing, which has gone to great lengths to repress Uighur nationalism in the far-western province of Xinjiang, where most of the Turkic group have lived for centuries.

"The United States should not even contemplate returning Uighurs to China," said Brad Adams, director of HRW’s Asia division, in a statement. "Any assurances from China that it will not mistreat returnees would not be worth the paper they are written on."

"It would be virtually impossible for the US to prevent mistreatment of these detainees once they fall into China’s abysmal prison system," he added.

Some 660 al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects from more than two dozen countries are being held as "illegal combatants" at Guantanamo. Most were seized during the brief, US-led military campaign in Afghanistan two years ago.

Instead of giving them "prisoner of war" status, the administration considers them "illegal combatants," meaning they lack some of the basic rights and protections that are accorded POWs under the Geneva Conventions and virtually all of the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has declared that, like POWs, the detainees can be held so long as the war against terrorism continues.

Their status and treatment have generated much controversy, both in the United States and overseas, where a number of governments, human rights groups and prominent jurists have criticized Washington for not giving them POW status or ensuring basic due process rights.

In a very rare public criticism, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last month strongly denounced the detentions, calling them "unacceptable" under current conditions.

This week one of Britain’s most prominent jurists, High Court Judge Steyn, called the circumstances of their detention "monstrous," and declared that Washington’s refusal to permit the prisoners to challenge their detention in a court amounted to a "breach of the minimum standards of customary international law."

The US Supreme Court decided earlier this month to hear a case that challenges the Pentagon’s claim that the detainees are not entitled to basic constitutional rights because the base where they are being held cannot be considered US territory. But the case will not be argued before early next year, and a decision is not expected until the spring.

Some 88 detainees, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been quietly returned to their home countries. While Washington agreed that 84 of them could be freed as harmless, four others were repatriated to Saudi Arabia, where they remain in detention, reported the Associated Press this week.

The AP quoted officials as saying that dozens more could be repatriated but only on condition that their governments subject them to interrogation and continued detention. Among that group are the Uighurs, who were apparently training in Afghanistan with the intention of returning to Xinjiang to fight for independence from China when they were captured.

Beijing has relentlessly repressed the cause of Uighur separatism, which has flared in occasional violence and bombings several times over the past decade.

Suspected separatists have been systematically tortured and otherwise mistreated, while some have been executed after trials that also do not meet minimum international due-process standards, according to HRW and Amnesty International, as well as US State Department human rights reports.

Under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Washington ratified in 1994, governments are forbidden to return individuals to countries if there are substantial grounds to believe they might be subject to such treatment.

The Bush administration has acknowledged this obligation, but its practice during the war on terrorism raises serious questions about whether it would abide by it, say rights activists.

A number of US and foreign newspapers have reported over the past year that suspected terrorists seized by or transferred to US custody have in some cases been "rendered" to home governments for interrogation.

In most cases, the intelligence or security services of those governments are known to use torture or other forms of mistreatment against detainees.

The most notorious case came to light earlier this month when a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, disclosed that he had been detained at a New York airport in September 2002 while in transit from the Middle East to Canada.

After a brief interrogation he was flown to Washington, from there to Jordan and thence to Syria, where he was beaten and confined to a small cell for 10 months.

Last week, US officials admitted Arar had been detained and deported, but insisted that they had received assurances in advance from Damascus that he would not be mistreated. Arar has already filed suit against the governments of Jordan and Syria, and his lawyers said they have plans to sue the United States as well.

"As with Arar and Syria, it is a fallacy to believe that a state that systematically practices torture will magically transform itself simply because it has offered diplomatic assurances," said Adams.

"It would be extremely reckless to accept written assurances from China in these cases. If these men are returned and anything happens to them, it will be the responsibility of the United States."

HRW called for the administration to immediately institute a moratorium on returning detainees to countries that routinely practice torture until it has completed a broader review of what has happened to such individuals in the past.

Inter Press Service

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.