WASHINGTON (CN) – Republican and Democratic representatives united Tuesday in charging that U.S. foreign policy bowed to Chinese interests when 22 Uighurs — bought from bounty hunters — were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, compounding the misery of an ethnic group persecuted by the Chinese in their homeland. “Have we drifted so far away from our principles?” asked a House member.
Members of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight accused the George W. Bush administration of designating a terrorist group without knowing enough information about the organization, and said it had simply accepted Chinese intelligence as fact.
“Not only is this about 22 individuals,” Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt said. “It’s about the very process we utilize in making far reaching decisions.”
“Have we drifted so far away from our principles?” asked California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, when we “do the bidding of the communist Chinese party by attacking people who are protesting Beijing’s repressive rule.”
The designation, which they said was made to please China into buying more US treasuries, resulted in the capture of non-terrorist Uighurs, and their long detention in Guantanamo Bay Prison.
The 22 Uighurs bought from bounty hunters for $5,000 each by the United States have cost the nation much more in a legal headache and in national image, provoking questions over how the United States determines who is a terrorist.
After the Bush administration determined the Uighurs were not terrorists, they were ordered released. But returning them to China is out of the question.
“They would likely face persecution, torture, or execution,” Kan said. Delahunt agreed that their “return to China would be certain torture.”
At the same time, Republicans have fought against moves to settle them in the United States. Some members of the Republican Party are lumping Uighurs in with terrorists “much to my dismay,” Rohrabacher said.
The United States has since turned to other countries to take the Uighurs. So far, Albania and Bermuda have taken some in, but the United States is still left with 17 who have been imprisoned for nearly seven years.
Dru Gladney, from Pomona College, described the Uighurs as a largely Muslim separatist group living in northwestern China. The 10 million strong agriculturalist population has been persecuted by the Chinese government, which has designated many of them as terrorists.
Chinese authorities claim the Uighurs are members of a terrorist organization, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, and continue to arrest them. But most of the arrests, said Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington University, are for political dissent, not for acts of violence.
He spoke to the legislators from Kosovo, his face transmitted onto two giant television screens.
In fact, the designation of ETIM as a terrorist organization is now under scrutiny, as are its ties to the Uighurs.
At the request of the Chinese, the United States designated the ETIM as a terrorist group in 2002.
Delahunt asked how the United States could possibly know enough about the group to make such a decision. The United States military, he said, didn’t know of ETIM until 2001. Less than a year later, the nation designated it as a terrorist group.
“We don’t even know what ETIM really is,” he said. “We’re making it up. That’s what everybody else is thinking.”
Delahunt further discredited the groups designation by added that media reports he’s read claim the organization has only one AK-47.
Shirley Kan of the Congressional Research Service, defended the group’s designation, stating that the organization had received money from Al Qaeda.
Delahunt dismissed this. “Up until recently, the former vice president continued to maintain that there was a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein,” he said.
He suggested that the committee hold a classified briefing to determine the relationship between the organization and Al Qaeda, but immediately rejected the idea as useless. “I can remember weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds,” he said, referring to the misleading briefings before the war in Iraq.
Delahunt said the perceived connection between the Uighurs and the terrorist organization was the “hook” that kept them incarcerated for almost seven years.
But, even if the ETIM were a properly designated terrorist organization, members of the committee and the panel agreed that the Uighurs detained by the United States had no association with it.
Roberts from George Washington University, who lived with the Uighurs during much of the 1990s, said he never heard of the terrorist group until it was placed on the terrorism list in 2002, and called the classification of Uighurs as terrorists a “misnomer” at best, and a “calculated misrepresentation” by the Chinese government at worst.
There is “very little evidence to support the claim that the people in question are terrorists,” he said.
The Uighurs collected from bounty hunters in Afghanistan are reported to have fled to Afghanistan to organize against the Chinese government, but Roberts from George Washington University said the group has remained small.
It is “proper for us to surmise that our government was just spoon fed information,” Rohrabacher said, calling the designation a “pathetic attempt” to please the Chinese. “Now our leaders have to beg the Chinese to buy our treasuries.”
Rohrabacher said the Uighurs do not fulfill the role of terrorists because their violence is only directed at government officials, not innocent civilians. He likened them to American revolutionaries and the Tibetans. “We should never be on the side of the oppressor.”
Before the hearing ended, Delahunt proposed holding a hearing on the vacation island of Bermuda to question the Uighurs in person. The legislators agreed promptly and unanimously to that proposal.