October 7, 2008 was a truly historic day. In a landmark judicial decision United States federal judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that seventeen Uighur Guantanamo Bay detainees (pronounced most correctly as ooygOOr) are to be released and take up residence in America. The Uighurs, held at Gitmo for 7 years and officially cleared of "enemy combatant" status by the Justice Department on September 30, would be the first prisoners ever sent to live on U.S. soil. In response, the Justice Department filed an emergency motion for a stay of the judgment stating that the ruling evokes "serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues." The Chinese have also protested the opinion. China has demanded the repatriation of its citizens, claiming that the Uighurs will be tried lawfully as terrorists and won't be tortured. So who exactly are these Uighurs at the center of all the domestic and international excitement?
The Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims from Central Asia. Most Uighurs live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of northwestern China where they account for 45% of its population. For many years China has used the cover of fighting terrorist pro-independence groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to brutally smash separatist voices in Xinjiang. China also undermines claims for regional independence by continuing to encourage ethnically Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang. It is estimated that Han Chinese make up 40% of the population in the region today compared to only 5% sixty years ago. The 17 Uighurs in question were transferred to the United States from Pakistan in 2001 after allegedly participating in Afghani terrorist training camps. They have been in American custody ever since.
On October 7 it looked like the detained Uighurs had finally found freedom with Uighur-Americans in McLean, Virginia but their release was promptly blocked by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The federal appeals court granted the Justice Department's request for a stay of Urbina's historic decision. So for now the Uighurs of Guantanamo remain homeless and their plight continues----perhaps even until a new President moves into the White House. (back to homepage)
(photo credit: pbs.org)