WASHINGTON – A Chinese Muslim locked up at Guantanamo Bay may soon be granted an improbable wish: To move to the United States.
A federal judge this week ordered the man and 16 other members of an ethnic group from western China freed from Guantanamo and brought to his courtroom, but an appeals court late Wednesday gave the Bush administration at least a week to come up with arguments against the move.
Statements over the years by the Uighurs held at Guantanamo since 2002, reviewed by The Associated Press, indicate they consider America an ally but are angry they have been imprisoned for so long.
Guantanamo has been steeped in controversy since suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members were first sent to the base in Cuba in chains in January 2002. Human rights groups and lawyers said people who had nothing to do with either group were swept up in the aftermath of 9/11, some sold to U.S. forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan for bounties. The Bush administration insisted only the "worst of the worst" were taken to Guantanamo.
But even the U.S. government now says the Uighurs, an ethnic group that allegedly suffers repression from the Chinese government, are not enemy combatants.
The Bush administration is unwilling to send them home because they face abuses in China, so it is trying to find other countries to take them. It says they're too dangerous to "let loose" on U.S. streets because they allegedly received weapons training.
In their statements to military panels at Guantanamo, the Uighurs said they left China to escape repression or look for work because Uighurs were denied good jobs at home. They said that if they felt hostility toward any country, it was China and not the United States.
They have been held since 2002 at Guantanamo alongside suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members.
"I want you to explain why I have been grouped in with those terrorist people," said Arkin Mahmud — the detainee who dreams of moving to the U.S. — to a Guantanamo panel almost three years ago. The Army colonel presiding over the Administrative Review Board said his panel didn't need to explain why Mahmud was in Guantanamo.
Mahmud denied receiving weapons training and laughed when a soldier suggested he had plans to attack the United States. "No, of course not," he responded.
He did, however, acknowledge that he had lashed out Guantanamo prison guards.
"When a regular person is just doing his business and ... then ends up in prison, that is frustrating and sometimes you get mad," he said.
"I would like for the United States to take me and I will stay there the rest of my life in peace," Mahmud said, when asked what country he would like to go to.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Uighur American Association, said Uighur families in the Washington area are willing to house the men. Brant Copeland, a pastor from Tallahassee, Florida, said in a conference call with Kadeer and journalists that his community is ready to welcome them — even though he hasn't found anyone there who speaks their Turkic language.
Mahmud told his Guantanamo tribunal that he was a shoe repairman and had gone to Afghanistan in search of his brother, who is also among Guantanamo's 17 Uighurs. Uighurs are from China's impoverished Xinjiang region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan and six other nations.
The brother, in a separate tribunal, acknowledged that he had learned how to use a Kalashnikov in Afghanistan. He told the panel that he sought independence for his region, which Uighurs sometimes call "East Turkistan."
"We need a country like the U.S., like a powerful country, to help us," said Bahtiyar Mahnut, whose surname is spelled slightly differently from his brother's in military documents.
In 2002 — after the Uighurs were detained — the United States declared the East Turkistan Islamic Party a terrorist organization amid intense lobbying from China. Several of the Guantanamo Uighurs are accused of associating with the group.
Mahnut said China wants to make the Uighurs look bad and urged his military panel to "really look carefully" into the issue. He also dismissed al-Qaida members as lunatics.
"They just destroy everything and we're not crazy like those people," he said.
Abdul Razak, another Uighur, said he left China because he couldn't pay debts and went to Afghanistan "to start a carpet or possibly an animal skins business."
He denied receiving military training.
"If I wanted the training I would get it to fight against the Chinese government," he said, according to the transcripts reviewed by AP. "America has never hurt my family or my nationality. Why would I train to go against the U.S. government?"
He expressed frustration that his parents could not be brought to testify that he had gone to Afghanistan to look for work, adding "my parents are probably suffering now because of my debts."
The Air Force colonel presiding over the tribunal said that testimony would have been irrelevant. Razak disputed that.
"My parents know why they sent me out," he said. "Did they send me to fight or to do business? They know why."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference this week that the Uighurs were terrorists who should be returned to face justice in China and insisted they would not be tortured.
In their appearances before the Guantanamo panels, the detainees begged the American soldiers not to send them back to China, saying they would be tortured and executed there.
Mahmud said he would want only his dead body returned.
"If I should die in here, I would like for you to send my dead body back to my family," he said.