Wednesday, June 10, 2009

abandoning the uighurs

i'm old enough to remember when the republican party championed the uighur cause. back then, they were in on it because the uighurs were resisting "communist china." some of the uighurs went to afghanistan to get military training, and were picked up by american forces in the post-9/11 sweeps. the u.s. moved them to guantanamo but quickly determined that the uighurs had no interest in fighting the u.s. the bush administration classified them as non-enemy combatants, which meant that they no longer should be imprisoned.

meanwhile, after 9/11 the chinese government claimed the ETIM, the uighur separatist group, was an al qaeda affiliate. the group had enjoyed some american support before 2001, but china used the 9/11 attacks to get the u.s. to turn against the group. it worked, in 2004, in exchange for chinese support of the iraq war, the u.s. designated the ETIM as a "terrorist organization" based entirely upon chinese-supplied information about the group.

so where did that leave the uighurs? the bush administration had already ruled them non-enemy combatants who posed no threat to the u.s. they sought to return them to china, but couldn't because the chinese government threatened to execute them. in 2006, albania agreed to take five uighur detainees. but chinese objections precluded them from accepting more. for the next two years, the bush administration searched the world for a place to repatriate them, while china threatened would-be recipients with retaliation if they did take them. and the 17 uighurs who were not resettled in albania languished in gitmo.

in 2008, because they weren't even enemy combatants and because the u.s. couldn't find any other country for them, a federal court ruled that the uighurs had to be released in the u.s. last february, the court of appeals blocked that order, ruling that the president and not the courts, could decide who was admitted to the u.s. president obama could have (and should have) simply admitted them to the u.s. but he didn't. instead, he continued the bush era policy of holding people found to be no threat in a prison until he could convince another country to take them.

it looks like the obama administration has finally found a country that may take them. predictably, a bunch of rightwing bloggers are outraged. admittedly, most seem to be focusing on the amount the u.s. paid palau to take them, but the bush administration also paid albania for taking uighurs three years ago. in fact, the bloggers crying foul seem to be completely unaware of the entire albanian experience, or the fact that those other five uighurs were released and have lived quietly for a few years.

one thing is clear, the republican tradition of championing uighur rights is officially over. that pretty much ended when newt gingrich echoed chinese propaganda about the uighurs in an op-ed piece last month. once again, defending the mistakes of the war on terror (even mistakes that the bush administration admitted to!) is worth jettisoning the republican parties' formerly principled stand.

UPDATE: see also glenn greenwald.