China's Uighurs trapped at Guantanamo
By Adam Wolfe

The Pentagon wants to release more than 12 of some two dozen Uighur detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but Washington for strategic and political reasons will not return the detainees, captured in Afghanistan, to China, which considers them terrorists and Xinjiang separatists. China would be expected to deal with them harshly. Since other countries, concerned about their own diplomatic relations with China, are unwilling to accept the detainees, the United States faces a serious threat to its diplomatic relationship with China if it grants the detainees asylum in the US.

This difficult situation in Cuba highlights the complexities that underscore, and threaten to undermine, Washington's policy on China's western Xinjiang region, one populated by Muslim Uighurs seeking greater autonomy, independence or just better treatment.

Recent riots between Hui Muslim Chinese and Han Chinese in central China's Henan province left at least 150 dead and resulted in the imposition of martial law. And the situation in Xinjiang and Uighur-Han relations are far more tense than in Henan, boding ill for any returning Uighurs who had fought in Afghanistan against US forces.

History of the Xinjiang region
China's Xinjiang region is the traditional home of the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who converted to Islam in the 1300s. In 1949, the newly established communist government of China took control of the region. To consolidate its power in the area, Beijing began to resettle Han Chinese people in Xinjiang, a policy leading to a dramatic shift in the demographics of the region: the Han population has increased from 7% to over 40% since 1949.

The Uighur population often felt slighted by Beijing and resented that Han Chinese were given state-sponsored jobs after moving to Xinjiang, while Uighurs were offered few economic opportunities. In the early 1990s, this resentment began to form the foundation of a sometimes-violent opposition movement.

After seeing the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movements, the Tibetan autonomy or independence movements within China, and witnessing the former Soviet Central Asian states gain their independence to the west, the Uighurs in Xinjiang began to speak out against Beijing's control. This movement lacked the clear leadership of the Tibetan campaign being fought to their south, and it quickly became fractured. Militant groups emerged to challenge China's rule forcefully, while non-violent groups agitated within China and sought backing from Western governments.

Beijing focused on the violent groups, while Washington highlighted the grievances of the non-violent groups. The 1990 uprising in Baren, a small town near Kashgar, led by the Free Turkestan Movement and claimed 22 lives was used by Beijing as an excuse to crack down on the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Throughout the 1990s, Beijing's efforts to increase its control over Xinjiang were answered by a series of attacks by militant Uighur groups. Washington's position on the attacks was that they were being launched by a small minority within the opposition movement, which had legitimate grievances with the Chinese government.

While the US promoted human-rights issues in Xinjiang, Beijing claimed that the attacks were being waged by groups that had ties to terrorist organizations in Central Asia. In many cases these claims were valid, but Washington's strategic goals were to promote human rights in China and weaken the government's control of its western periphery regions, in case a conflict should arise between the two states in the long term; it was not in the United States' interests to provide a justification for China to rein in the Uighur groups seeing greater autonomy or separation. To this end, Washington dismissed Beijing's claims that Uighur groups fought on the side of the Taliban during the 1996 revolution in Afghanistan as propaganda - and an excuse to persecute political dissidents.

To achieve greater control over the Xinjiang region, China pushed for the formation of the Shanghai Five, a regional organization that integrated the security forces of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to suppress separatist movements within each country. In this period, the member countries' concerns were more closely aligned with Beijing than with Washington's goal of promoting democracy and pluralism in the former Soviet states. The Shanghai Five admitted Uzbekistan in June 2001 and was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It has become one of Beijing's dominant tools for achieving regional influence in Central Asia.

Xinjiang in the 'war on terror'
Although Washington monitored the actions of the militant Uighur groups prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, they were not seen as a threat to US objectives in the region. This changed after Uighur militants were captured and killed during the invasion of Afghanistan while fighting alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There are reportedly two dozen Uighur militants captured during fighting in Afghanistan, and being held at Guantanamo Bay.

While Washington's long-term goals for Xinjiang were little altered by the new "war on terrorism", it became difficult to reconcile support for Uighur freedoms and the desire to eliminate any group that aligned itself with al-Qaeda. Although many in Washington were skeptical that any Uighur groups would attack outside of the Xinjiang region, they also hoped to exploit any ties that might exist between these groups and al-Qaeda. This put Washington in the uncomfortable position of cooperating with China on Xinjiang affairs or ignoring possible opportunities to weaken the operational capabilities of Osama bin Laden's organization.

The administration of President George W Bush pursued a path that mitigated these concerns. The State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) quickly began differentiating between violent groups that had ties to international terrorist organizations and nonviolent groups that were campaigning for greater autonomy and religious freedom within the Xinjiang region. Some of the groups that were singled out as violent were the United Revolutionary Front of Eastern Turkestan, which has ties to groups in Kazakhstan and took up arms against China in 1997; the Wolves of Lop Nor, which has claimed responsibility for several train bombings and assassinations in Xinjiang; and the Xinjiang Liberation Organization and Uighur Liberation Organization, which have been active in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and are tied to the assassinations of Uighurs thought to be cooperating with the Chinese government.

The main way the US sought to combat these violent groups was through bilateral agreements with the Central Asian countries in which these militants were training and operating. This method was chosen as a way to undermine the importance of the SCO to the member states' security strategies and to decrease the influence the organization allowed to China. However, there has also been some amount of US cooperation with China on combating these organizations. It was widely viewed that Washington placed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the official US list of terrorist organizations on August 26, 2002, as a sign of cooperation with Beijing after the US attacks in September 2001.

The Bush administration, however, also has attempted to maintain its previous position of supporting greater religious freedom within China and weakening Beijing's control over its western provinces. To this end, the administration has been consistent in stating China must not use the "war on terrorism" as "an excuse to persecute minorities" within its territory. Washington has also increased its funding and support for nonviolent Uighur groups, such as the East Turkestan National Congress and the Regional Uighur Organization. Most prominently, the Uighur American Association received a grant from the US-government-funded National Endowment for Democracy - a first for a Uighur exile group.

No easy answers
These competing agendas have made Washington's position on the Xinjiang region difficult to sustain, and the desire to free the Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay has further complicated the problem. Washington cannot return the detainees to China for two reasons: their repatriation would be seen as a justification of China's discriminatory policy toward its Uighur citizens, which would make it more difficult for Washington to promote the peaceful instability it favors in the Xinjiang region, and there are genuine concerns for the detainees' safety if they return to China.

Last week's widely reported violence in the Henan province in central China in which fighting between Han Chinese and Hui Muslims left 150 dead and ended with a declaration of martial law exemplifies Washington's concerns about repatriating the detainees. Hui Muslims are not generally thought to be a threat to Chinese rule and are better integrated into Chinese society than the Uighur Muslims. China's record on human-rights issues has led to a weapons sales ban from Western governments and has greatly shaped Washington's approach to Beijing since the peaceful Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. Sending the detainees to a country in which it can be reasonably assumed that they would be tortured or persecuted would also be a violation of international law. There is little reason to believe that the US will change its opposition to China's human-rights record to repatriate the Uighur detainees.

It is also unlikely that Washington will grant the detainees US asylum, even if the detainees are deemed to be no threat to US national security. This would risk creating a rift between Beijing and Washington that the US cannot allow when it is relying on Beijing's cooperation in nuclear arms negotiations with North Korea. If Washington is serious about freeing the detainees - and it does appear that this is the case - then there is only one workable solution to the problem: finding a third party to accept the detainees, a country with an acceptable human-rights record.

The Financial Times reported that Washington has approached Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Austria and Turkey to accept the detainees. So far, none of the countries has been willing to accept them. Many of these countries are attempting to increase their economic ties to China, and accepting the detainees might make this more difficult. One way around this would be for the US to allow the United Nations to negotiate the repatriation, but this is unlikely to happen. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is concerned that UN involvement would threaten China's cooperation on the humane treatment of North Korean refugees, and not sending them back to Pyongyang that would be expected to torture, persecute and very possibly kill them.

Why the Uighur Muslims were captured, and why they were deemed no longer to pose a threat to the US, is not clear. However, there is little chance that the detainees will be freed from US custody any time soon, because there is little maneuverability for Washington's Xinjiang policy. The US will continue to search for a country that will accept the detainees, but China's importance to global capital markets makes this unlikely to succeed.

Most likely, the detainees will be sent to another US-run facility that operates under clearer international laws - this may help to promote the idea that Washington is dedicated to finding a solution to the problem that is consistent with international law and makes repatriation in another country less politically risky. Previously, Washington has sent Iranian and Syrian detainees to a US-run prison in Afghanistan after no acceptable country was found willing to accept them. The current situation of the two dozen Uighur Muslims is the result of complicated, and sometimes contradictory, policy decisions and no simple solution will present itself to allow for their release.

Adam Wolfe is a communications analyst and a contributor to the Power and Interest News Report. His analyses have been printed in many publications, including the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He has a degree in communications from the University of Wisconsin.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments should be directed to .