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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 January 2007, 13:30 GMT
Guantanamo Uighurs' strange odyssey
By Neil Arun
BBC News, Tirana

Former Guantanamo Bay detainees, from left - Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim

Sipping orange juice before their midday prayers sit three men once treated as terrorists by two of the world's most powerful nations.

Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim were despatched to Guantanamo Bay at the dawn of the "war on terror".

The US military eventually ruled that they did not pose a threat and set them free last summer.

In their native China, however, they remain wanted men, regarded as militant Muslim separatists sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

Fearing they would face torture or death if handed over to Beijing, the US arranged asylum for five of its former captives in Albania - Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim and two other Uighurs. (A further 13 of their compatriots remain in Guantanamo.)

Detainee at Guantanamo Bay
Albania is the new destination for a special type of terror suspect

From the safety of a cafe in the Albanian capital, Tirana, Abu Bakr says China persecutes his ethnic kin, Turkic-speaking Uighurs who practise Islam and have long sought a separate state.

"We are being killed because we want the right to pray together - because we want to keep our beards and traditional dress," he says.

China accuses the Uighurs of fomenting unrest in the western region of Xinjiang. Rights groups say thousands have been killed or imprisoned in China's crackdown on the Uighurs' separatist aspirations.

Despite four years' wrongful imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Bakr reserves most of his rage for Beijing.

"The US committed a great injustice by imprisoning us men," he says, referring to the 18 Uighurs initially jailed at Guantanamo.

"But you cannot compare America's behaviour with China's," he says.

Escape from Afghanistan

Abu Bakr and at least two of the five Uighur men freed from Guantanamo were once traders, taking cheap Chinese leather goods to the markets of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.


They say Chinese police tried to discourage their foreign visits by intimidating them and extracting bribes.

Abu Bakr began to plan a foreign trip overland towards Turkey and Europe.

He joined a larger group of would-be migrants and they set off through the neighbouring post-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, winding up in the winter of 2001 in the Afghan city of Jalalabad.

Within days of their arrival, Jalalabad was under attack. US fighter pilots had the Taleban stronghold in their sights as they bombed the hardline Islamist government out of office.

Village near Jalalabad hit by US bomb, 2001
The Jalalabad region was targeted by US fighter jets in 2001

The men left for Pakistan and in the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border, they were picked up by a nomadic tribe that gave them food and shelter.

But word had spread that the Americans were offering large sums of money for al-Qaeda suspects. The tribesmen tipped off the authorities and traded their Uighur guests for the bounty.

The men were taken back to Afghanistan to a newly built US detention centre in the city of Kandahar. They say they were interrogated for several months and denied decent food and baths.

Then they were flown to Guantanamo Bay.

Terror prison

The group of 18 Uighurs stuck together at the Cuban prison camp teeming with terror suspects from around the world.

"We exchanged religious greetings with some of the Arabs," Abu Bakr says. "But there was no way of forming any friendships."

As for the guards, he says, "most of them behaved like robots".

"There were some good ones who showed us kindness and there were others who went out of their way to offend us - throwing around our copies of the Koran, making farting noises while we prayed."

Adil Abdul Hakim
Albanian people are very welcoming and there are many Muslim brothers here
Adil Abdul Hakim

US defence officials, in response to similar allegations of abuse at Guantanamo, have said every effort is made to respect detainees' rights and to investigate - and punish - apparent violations.

"Guantanamo was a five-year nightmare," Abu Bakr says. "We're trying to forget it."

But the men say they are still haunted by the memory of the 13 fellow Uighurs arrested with them who remain in the prison camp.

"We appeal to the US to release all of them," Abu Bakr says. "We are peaceful people - not terrorists."

According to Jason Pinney, a lawyer who campaigned for the men, the cases of the 13 Uighurs still in detention "are factually indistinct from the released men".

"We believe this demonstrates the arbitrariness of detention at Guantanamo," he says.

Nury Turkel, a former president of the Uighur-American Association, says the Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay instinctively viewed the US as an ally until their arrest.

"The irony is that in many cases the US has actively supported the Uighur cause," he says.

New life

The men were initially unsettled by the prospect of settling in Albania.

Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang province
Uighurs say their Islamic faith is under threat from China

"We were scared because we thought Albania would be like China - we heard it had gone through 50 years of communism," Abu Bakr says.

But they say they were pleasantly surprised. "We've received a lot of help here," Adil says. "Albanian people are very welcoming and there are many Muslim brothers here."

"Albania is a poor country," Abu Bakr says. "But it showed itself to be strong in standing up to the Chinese."

The men plan to learn the Albanian language and eventually find work here. Locals talk of hiring them in the security industry. Others say they could cash in on their "celebrity" by establishing Albania's first Uighur restaurant.

The hardship of making a new life in an alien country has been eased by the friendship between the five men - a bond forged in Guantanamo Bay.

When they arrived in Albania, the men say they were sent for blood tests and discovered to their amazement that they shared the same blood group.

"We always knew we were brothers in Islam," Abu Bakr laughs. "Now we know we are true brothers - blood brothers!"

Albania takes Guantanamo Uighurs
06 May 06 |  Americas
Guantanamo Uighur appeal rejected
17 Apr 06 |  Americas
US camp holds 'homeless' Chinese
24 Aug 05 |  Americas
Fighting the cause of China's Uighurs
24 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
China 'crushing Muslim Uighurs'
12 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Uighurs behind bars in China
18 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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