NEW YORK (IPS/GIN) – An influential congressional committee has delivered a scathing criticism of China’s closed trial of 15 men on terrorism charges.
The closed trial resulted in the immediate execution of two defendants, as well as in three suspended death sentences and 10 sentences of life imprisonment.
The men were members of the Uygur [Pronounced: “ooygOOr”] Muslim minority in western China. They have been reliably reported to have been systematically persecuted by Chinese authorities.
The legislators’ charges came from leaders of the Congressional Human Rights Committee, Co-Chairs Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Rep. Frank Wolf ( R-Va.). The two lawmakers condemned “the harsh pre-Olympic crackdown” in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China.
They also expressed their strong concern over credible reports detailing abuses of due process and rule of law in the July 9 closed trial.
In a statement, Rep. Wolf said, “The Chinese government should not be permitted to use the War on Terror or Olympic security as a front to persecute the Uygurs. These ‘trials’ appear to be no more than a ploy to oppress religious freedom and ethnic minority groups.”
The Uygurs also made other recent news in the U.S., when a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. military improperly labeled Huzaifa Parhat, a Chinese Muslim held at Guantanamo Bay, as an “enemy combatant.” The court ordered that he be released, transferred or granted a new hearing.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington marks the first time a federal court has weighed in on the issue of a Guantanamo detainee’s classification and granted a detainee the opportunity to try to secure his release through civilian courts.
A lawyer for Mr. Parhat, who has been kept virtually incommunicado for more than six years, said he and other members of Mr. Parhat’s legal team would seek to have him freed immediately.
Mr. Parhat is one of 17 Uygur Muslims still being held at Guantanamo, even though the U.S. government acknowledges they pose no threat.
The decision was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the George W. Bush administration and its efforts to defend the military commission’s process at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The order came just days after the Supreme Court ruled that the approximately 270 remaining detainees at Guantanamo have a constitutional right of habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge their detention in federal courts. That ruling marked the third time since 2004 that the nation’s highest court has limited the government’s power to use the military to detain and prosecute foreign nationals at Guantanamo.
The appeals court specified that Mr. Parhat could “seek release immediately” through a writ of habeas corpus in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision. Mr. Parhat’s case and scores like it had been put on hold until the Supreme Court made its ruling on the habeas corpus issue.
“Now all of these cases have been revived and this is the first case to move forward,” said David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University. “And here is somebody that the military has been holding on to for six years and the federal court now says he shouldn’t have been held in the first place.”
He added: “Absent this independent judicial review, he might have been sitting there for another 10 to 15 years. Now he has a chance to find freedom.”
Gabor Rona, International Legal Director for Human Rights First, said: “Mr. Parhat is the poster child who proves that the Supreme Court’s decision to restore the right of habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees is correct. The government’s decision to imprison him absent evidence of wrongdoing and without giving him a fair hearing is precisely the harm that habeas corpus is designed to correct.”
Two years ago, five Uygurs were released from Guantanamo to seek asylum in Albania, after the United States said it could not return them to China because they would face persecution there. The released Uygurs live in an Albanian refugee camp, unable to speak the local language and forbidden to work.
Seventeen Uygurs being held at Guantanamo have been cleared for release as part of annual reviews. The government said that, while they are still designated enemy combatants, they are not considered significant threats or thought “to have further intelligence value.”
The Uygurs are part of a large group of Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release but nonetheless remain in detention. The State Department claims it cannot find countries willing to accept these detainees. U.S authorities have balked at allowing the Uygurs into the United States.
Mr. Parhat, 37, and the other Uygurs were captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he had sought refuge there from an oppressive Chinese government and pledged that he had never fought against the United States. The U.S. government has produced no evidence suggesting that he ever intended to fight, but it designated him as an enemy combatant because of alleged links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group demanding independence from China that Washington believes has links to Al-Qaeda.
Despite the court’s ruling, Mr. Parhat’s future is unclear. And while the U.S. government ponders its legal options, Mr. Parhat and his 16 fellow Uygurs continue to live in a cage. According to his lawyers, Mr. Parhat spends his repetitive days sleeping, praying, trying to read in a language that he does not understand and walking in circles inside his cell.