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China is upset about Uighur transfer, again

Uighur detainees stage an impromptu protest at Guantanamo's "Camp Iguana" on June 1, 2009. MICHELLE SHEPHARD / TORONTO STAR


"Kafkaesque" has become an overused term in the decade since 9/11. But when it comes to the tragic story of the Uighur detainees who were trapped in Guantanamo - the last of whom were finally transferred last week - it is a fitting description.

What does "Kafkaesque" mean? Frederick R. Karl, the author of a biography of Franz Kafka, gave this description to the New York Times. He said, it is not, say, missing your bus and finding out they have stopped running. That's annoying, but hardly defies logic. "Kafkaesque," he said, "is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.

"You don't give up, you don't lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance. That's Kafkaesque."

American interrogators told some of the Uighur detainees after their capture in 2001 that they would be released soon. They said, according to many of the 22 Uighur men I've interviewed over the years, that the American interrogators appreciated that they opposed China, not the U.S.

Uighurs are Muslims who are persecuted in China and strive for independence. They did not fit the "enemy combatant" definition introduced after 9/11 and Guantanamo's military tribunals, the U.S. federal court and the Pentagon under both the Bush and Obama administrations agreed.

Yet, they remained trapped for years as the U.S. refused to settle them due to Congress restrictions and other countries, including Canada, would not offer refuge at the risk of hurting relations with China. And China is clear in its opposition. A day after news broke that the last three detainees were freed from Guantanamo, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang slammed Slovakia. 

“They are genuine terrorists. They not only threaten China's security, they will threaten the security of the country that receives them,” he told a daily news briefing, according to Reuters."

"China hopes that the relevant country … does not give asylum to terrorists, and sends them back to China as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, what fate awaits the men is uncertain. While some of the resettled Uighurs have done well in other countries such as Albania, or have found their way to Turkey, some of the men, such as the four in Bermuda, remain without passports or any travel documents. The political favours they received in the first Obama administration - when countries were more willing to accommodate U.S. requests on Gitmo - have dissipated as time has passed. Again, they have become political pawns.

For them, the Guantanamo chapter has ended, but Kafka lives on.


Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award and producing a documentary on the Uighur detainees due out this year. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm


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