HONG KONG — For some people, the very name Guantanamo has come to stand for something repulsive about America — in particular the difference between what it preaches about human rights and what it practices.
In the detention camp, people suspected of being members of the Taliban or al-Qaida were held without charge and, because the camp was not on American soil, the detainees could not take their cases to U.S. courts.
Eventually, the U.S. government determined that some detainees were not terrorists and could be released. Most were sent back to their home countries.
There were 22 Uighurs — an ethnic minority of Muslims — from the Xinjiang region of China. Beijing demanded that they be repatriated but the Uighurs pleaded not to be returned to China, where they feared torture and imprisonment.
So the U.S. began a search for countries that would take them. It wasn’t easy.
In 2007, Albania accepted five of the Uighurs. However, China then made it clear that it opposed any country offering the Uighurs refuge.
The extent of Chinese displeasure became clear in diplomatic cables recently disclosed by WikiLeaks.
One cable, sent by the American ambassador to Kyrgyzstan after a meeting with the Chinese ambassador in February 2009, was very revealing. Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller asked her Chinese counterpart, Zhang Yannian, about a report that China had offered $3 billion to Kyrgyzstan if it would shut down the American base in the country.
The Chinese diplomat ridiculed the idea but did not categorically deny it. The cable quoted him as saying that not sending the Uighurs back to China was a “slap in the face” and implied that “the Guantanamo situation had made China look for ways to hit back at the U.S.”
At the time, it was known that the United States was holding talks with Germany about taking some of the Uighur detainees.
Another WikiLeaks cable, this one from from Brussels, showed that China was putting pressure on European countries not to accept any Uighurs from Guantanamo.
The cable quoted EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove as saying that members of the European Union “have been under intense pressure from China not to accept Uighurs, and that some are concerned about possible repercussions in bilateral and EU-level relations with China if they accept detainees.”
In the end, Germany did not accept the Uighurs.
Instead, small numbers of Uighurs were sent to the Bermuda, the tiny Pacific country of Palau as well as Switzerland.
Of course, no one can know for sure exactly what would have happened to the Guantanamo Uighurs if the U.S. had sent them back to China.
However, a recent case provides some pretty strong clues.
A year ago, a group of 20 Uighurs arrived in Cambodia with the help of Christian missionaries and applied for asylum at the Phnom Penh office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They said they were fleeing a crackdown after ethnic riots in Xinjiang.
The group consisted of men, boys, a woman and two infants.
However, before the applications could be processed, the Cambodia deported them back to China.
This was done over the objections of the U.S., the EU and U.N. officials.
The forcible return of the Uighurs took place on Dec. 19, 2009, a day before the arrival in Cambodia of China’s vice president, Xi Jinping. During the Xi visit, China agreed to provide more than $1.2 billion in aid to Cambodia.
A year has gone by and there is no news on the fate of the 20 Uighurs. There has been no announcement of any charges or trials. The Chinese government has simply “disappeared” all of them, including the infants.
In fact, the only statement on the issue by the Chinese foreign ministry was in response to questions sent by The New York Times. It said: “China is a country ruled by law. The judicial authorities deal with illegal criminal activities strictly according to law.”
Beijing’s handling of this incident provides justification for the U.S. not to send the Guantanamo Uighurs back to China. At the very least, Washington — whatever its own misdeeds — decided not to participate in the further violation of the human rights of these individuals.
And China, it seems, is becoming so powerful that it is in a position to exert pressure on almost all countries to do its bidding.
Frank Ching is a journalist based in Hong Kong (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org).