On a recent Saturday night, 200 or so members of Washington, DC's Uighur community gathered at the Northern Virginia Community College cultural center to celebrate Nation's Day. The event commemorated the Central Asian ethnic group's creation of the Republic of East Turkistan and declaration of independence from China—twice (once in 1933 and again in 1944). The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurz) spent the evening listening to traditional poetry recited by an elderly man in a sequined hat who occasionally burst into patriotic a cappella song, calling on people to throw off the yoke of oppression. Dark-suited men and women in elegant shiny head wraps clapped along with accordion music and consumed traditional Uighur party food: a whole lamb kebob, which was quickly stripped to the bone by hungry guests and their gaggle of children. The attendees represented a large chunk of the nation's tiny Uighur community. Yet the festive event was most notable for who wasn't there: 17 Uighur men who have been wrongly detained at Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years.
The suburban Virginia Uighurs had hoped the men would attend the festivities after a federal judge in DC ordered the detainees released into the US in October. The 17 men would have been the first Guantanamo detainees who are not US citizens allowed into the United States. The Uighur community was ecstatic with the ruling, but the excitement was short-lived. A day after US District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the detainees released, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals granted the Justice Department's emergency request to stay his decision. Relying on McCarthy-era legal precedent, Justice Department lawyers argued that even though the men are no longer considered enemy combatants—they've been cleared many times over of that status—detaining them indefinitely at Guantanamo is still legal. The court will hear oral arguments Monday morning over whether or not Urbina's order to bring the men to the US should be enforced.
The long-running Uighur saga is one of the most heart-wrenching and complex stories to arise out of the global fight against terrorism since the September 11 attacks. The fate of the 17 detainees holds great symbolic value for both the Bush administration and human rights activists who believe that the Uighurs represent all that has gone wrong with the administration's war on terror.
A Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group, Uighurs hail from a region along the old Silk Road in western China. Their Republic of East Turkistan was an independent country from 1864 until 1876, when the Manchu empire reinvaded and, after a bloody eight-year war, renamed it Xinjiang (meaning "new frontier"). In 1949, Chinese communists annexed the area. The Uighurs have long faced political and religious repression at the hands of the Chinese that has included everything from forced abortions and death penalties for dissent to the relocation of educated Uighurs to remote parts of the country.
In response, there have been outbursts of violence credited to Uighur nationalist groups, but those have been rare. Uighur exiles in the US say that the Chinese government has inflated the threat of terrorism from Uighurs as an excuse to crack down on the religious minority. Nonetheless, in 2002, the Bush administration officially designated the Uighurs' East Turkistan Islamic Movement a terrorist group as it attempted to win Chinese support for its invasion of Iraq. Uighur exile groups and other human rights experts criticized the designation at the time, saying that it was based on thin charges from the Chinese and that its main result would be more Chinese oppression of the Uighurs. As it turned out, the designation set the stage for the indefinite detention of 17 men from Xinjiang who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.