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In recent weeks, there has been an unsavory race to see which Republican can come up with the most scare-mongering drivel about the remaining 240 prisoners in Guantánamo. This competition, which has also drawn in Democrats to such an extent that, on Wednesday, they spinelessly voted to withhold the funds needed to close the prison, and also to prevent the transfer of prisoners to the US, has generally focused on NIMBYist (“Not In My Back Yard”) responses to proposals to move prisoners from Guantánamo and incarcerate them on the US mainland, and has, for the most part, involved politicians who think that Americans are the toughest people in the world, and who have a network of impregnable maximum-security prisons, but who, nevertheless, have been wailing like babies about the “threat” posed by a group of men who have never been adequately screened, or received a fair hearing, to ascertain whether they are in fact a “threat” to the US.
Last week, however, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, hit a new low in the debate by lashing out at Guantánamo’s Uyghurs (also known as Uighurs), 17 men from China’s Xinjiang province, who, after a stunning court victory last June, are the only prisoners in Guantánamo to have persuaded the Bush administration to drop its claims that they were “enemy combatants.”
After this result, a vicious battle ensued between Judge Ricardo Urbina, of the District Court in Washington D.C., and Judges A. Raymond Randolph and Karen LeCraft Henderson in the appeals court. Judge Urbina ruled in October that the men’s continued detention was unconstitutional, and that they should be released into the care of communities in the US, because they cannot be returned to China (which has a history of human rights abuses with regard to the Uyghurs), and because no other country had been found that was prepared to accept them, but his ruling was reversed in February by Henderson and Randolph (who has a history of defending every major Bush administration detention policy that was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court), even though the dissenting judge, Judith W. Rogers, pointed out that when the Supreme Court granted Guantánamo prisoners “the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention” last June, the Court also held that “a court’s power under the writ must include ‘authority to … issue … an order directing the prisoner’s release.’”
In an article for the Washington Examiner last week, and in an appearance on FOX News, Gingrich stated bluntly that he thought the Uyghurs should be returned to China. “Why is that our problem?” he asked. “Why are we protecting these guys? Why does it become an American problem?” “Send them to China,” Gingrich continued. “If a third country wants to receive them, send them to a third country. But setting this precedent that if you get picked up by Americans – I mean, the Somalian who was recently brought here who’s a pirate – I mean, if you get picked up by the Americans, you show up in the United States, a lawyer files an amicus brief on your behalf for free, a year later you have citizenship because, after all, how can we not give you citizenship since you’re now here, and in between our taxpayers pay for you – this is, I think – verges on insanity.”
Gingrich’s outburst was immediately criticized by Rep. Bill Delahunt, who, as Ryan Grim explained in the Huffington Post, “ripped into” Gingrich, “arguing that his recent comments about [the] Uyghurs held at Guantánamo Bay show that he is either ignorant of international law or bizarrely allying himself with communist China – or both.”
Answering Gingrich’s question, “Why does it become an American problem?” Delahunt, who serves on the House foreign affairs committee, answered, “Well, in this particular case, we bought it. We bought it literally because these detainees were a victim of some half-cocked initiative, put out by Cheney et al, where they were purchased for $5,000.”
Delahunt added that he was surprised that Gingrich – a fervent anti-Communist who condemned China for using torture in 1997 – would ally himself with China. “I guess he is unaware of the [United Nations] Convention Against Torture which obligates us not to return them to China because it’s clear they would be persecuted and undoubtedly subjected to torture, incarceration and all sorts of degradation, given the history of the red, godless Chinese communist government,” he said, adding, “What I find particularly ironic is, here’s the former Speaker allying himself with the Chinese communists. Quite an interesting development. I guess his fervent anti-communism has abated somewhat.”
In response to Gingrich’s comments, the Uyghurs themselves sent a response from Guantánamo via their translator, Rushan Abbas, who has been working with them since 2002. “Why does he hate us so much and say those kinds of things?” they asked. “He doesn’t know us. He should talk to our attorneys if he’s curious about our background. How could he speak in such major media with nothing based in fact?”
Abbas proceeded to explain, “They just cannot understand. How come the media doesn’t even verify the story? How could they just publish something like that without checking whether what he says is true or not?” but as Ryan Grim noted, “The Uyghurs are apparently under the misconception that American columnists are fact-checked for accuracy.”
Today, a new commentator has stepped forward to defend the Uyghurs. In an article for Foreign Policy, “Meet The Real Uyghurs,” Nury A. Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney, who has been involved in the resettlement plans that were scuppered by the Justice Department and Judges Randolph and Henderson, presented a much-needed antidote to Gingrich’s unjustified assault on the Uyghurs from the perspective of someone with first-hand knowledge of the Uyghurs’ predicament in China, under the sub-heading, “Newt Gingrich needs to read up before he defames my entire ethnic group”.