By Abu Bakker Qassim. He was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, from 2002 to May. This article was translated from the Uighur by Nury Turael (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/09/06):
I HAVE been greatly saddened to hear that the Congress of the United States, a country I deeply admire, is considering new laws that would deny prisoners at Guantánamo Bay the right to challenge their detentions in federal court.
I learned my respect for American institutions the hard way. When I was growing up as a Uighur in China, there were no independent courts to review the imprisonment and oppression of people who, like me, peacefully opposed the Communists. But I learned my hardest lesson from the United States: I spent four long years behind the razor wire of its prison in Cuba.
I was locked up and mistreated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time during America’s war in Afghanistan. Like hundreds of Guantánamo detainees, I was never a terrorist or a soldier. I was never even on a battlefield. Pakistani bounty hunters sold me and 17 other Uighurs to the United States military like animals for $5,000 a head. The Americans made a terrible mistake.
It was only the country’s centuries-old commitment to allowing habeas corpus challenges that put that mistake right — or began to. In May, on the eve of a court hearing in my case, the military relented, and I was sent to Albania along with four other Uighurs. But 12 of my Uighur brothers remain in Guantánamo today. Will they be stranded there forever?
Without my American lawyers and habeas corpus, my situation and that of the other Uighurs would still be a secret. I would be sitting in a metal cage today. Habeas corpus helped me to tell the world that Uighurs are not a threat to the United States or the West, but an ally. Habeas corpus cleared my name — and most important, it let my family know that I was still alive.
Like my fellow Uighurs, I am a great admirer of the American legal and political systems. I have the utmost respect for the United States Congress. So I respectfully ask American lawmakers to protect habeas corpus and let justice prevail. Continuing to permit habeas rights to the detainees in Guantánamo will not set the guilty free. It will prove to the world that American democracy is safe and well.
I am from East Turkestan on the northwest edge of China. Communist China cynically calls my homeland “Xinjiang,” which means “new dominion” or “new frontier.” My people want only to be treated with respect and dignity. But China uses the American war on terrorism as a pretext to punish those who peacefully dissent from its oppressive policies. They brand as “terrorism” all political opposition from the Uighurs.
Amnesty International reports that East Turkistan is the only province in China where people may face the death penalty for political offenses. Chinese leaders brag about the number of Uighur political prisoners shot in the head. I was punished for speaking against China’s unjust policies, and I left because of the threat to my life. My search for work and refuge took me from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I heard about the Sept. 11 attacks for the first time in Guantánamo. I was not aware of their magnitude until after my release, when a reporter showed me images online at an Internet cafe in Tirana. It was a terrible thing. But I too was its victim. I would never have experienced the ordeal and humiliation of Guantánamo if this horrific event had not taken place.
I feel great sadness for the families who lost their loved ones on that horrible day five years ago. And I would be sadder still to see the freedom-loving American people walk away from their respect for the rule of law. I want America to be a strong and respected nation in the world. Only then can it continue to be the source of hope for the hopeless — like my people.