Three former Guantanamo prisoners were cleared by the U.S. — but will Ottawa let them join their Canadian wives?
|National Post 07 May 2019 at 15:50|
It’s been more than a decade since U.S. authorities freed Ayub Mohammed from their Cuban prison, having decided he was not, after all, an “enemy combatant.”
In that time the ethnic Uyghur from China has earned a business degree from the New York University of Tirana in Albania — his home since 2006 — met online and married a Canadian woman, and had three children, all of whom are Canadian citizens.
Now he wants to live with them in Montreal.
But Mohammed’s four-year ordeal at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the radioactive stigma that comes with it continue to haunt him.
The Federal Court of Canada recently ordered a new hearing for the 36-year-old after immigration officials denied his request for permanent resident status here. Disagreeing with those George W. Bush administration officials, a visa officer concluded he was a member of an obscure terrorist organization, and thus inadmissible.
In court, federal lawyers even argued a negative decision on Mohammed’s immigration request was “inevitable.”
“I live with that everyday, that stain of having been a detainee at Guantanamo Bay,” Mohammed said in an interview from Tirana. “Coming out of Guantanamo, I went into another kind of prison. Everywhere I go, I don’t have the documentation, I don’t have the freedom to move around and once people hear about my background, they stay away…. After they hear about my past, they just disappear.”
The Federal Court ruled Mohammed was denied procedural fairness in the way his visa request was handled, but a more basic question is whether there is any reason to brand him an extremist.
It is a question that could have an impact on two other Uyghur men who were held at Guantanamo. Now living in Bermuda, they also married Uyghur-Canadian refugees and have applied to join them in this country.
Khalil Mamut and Salahadin Abdulahad were among four Uyghur detainees — after the Americans re-classified them as non-combatants.
Ayub Mohammed, with his daughter Azia in Albania, has applied to emigrate to Canada to be with his wife and children, the U.S. having cleared him of terrorism accusations more than a decade ago when they freed him from Guantanamo Bay. But Canadian authorities allege he was a member of a terrorist group and is inadmissible. Handout
All are being represented by Toronto lawyer Prasanna Balasundaram of the Downtown Legal Services clinic.
As they await a response from Ottawa, the American lawyers who fought to get the Uyghurs released from Guantanamo say they’re perplexed at the initial Canadian decision.
“With absolute certainty, Ayub is not and never was a member of a terrorist organization,” said Wells Dixon, attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “I am shocked and appalled that Canada would deny someone like Ayub refuge on the basis that he was a terrorist.”
Even Randall Schriver, a senior State Department official in the Bush administration — and now Donald Trump’s assistant secretary of defence — told a congressional committee in 2009 the Uyghurs’ imprisonment was “a tragic error.”
As the three Uyghurs try to get into Canada, meanwhile, international concern is growing about China’s oppression of the Muslim minority group, which includes building vast “re-education” camps and pervasive surveillance in the country’s Xinjiang province.
Abdulahad says he has little ill feeling toward the Americans who held him for seven years, and believes what China is doing to the Uyghurs is far worse than anything that happened at Guantanamo Bay. He said three of his brothers are locked in “concentration camps,” while he’s been unable to contact his parents since 2015.
With absolute certainty, Ayub is not and never was a member of a terrorist organization
“I have no idea if they are dead or alive.”
The ex-Guantanamo inmates say they fled their homes because of such persecution, only to be captured in neighbouring Pakistan at the height of the war on terror. Their strange tale reflects both the turbulent times after 9/11 and the West’s complicated relationship with China.
Mohammed, Abdulahad, Memut and 19 others were captured in Pakistan in 2001 after trekking there from Afghanistan, lured into a trap by villagers eager to claim hefty bounties the Americans offered for suspected terrorists.
U.S. forces eventually sent them to Guantanamo. Mohammed languished in its harsh conditions until he and three others were bundled onto a military plane and flown to Albania , one of the few countries that agreed to receive Uyghur ex-detainees.
Unable to obtain travel papers, Mohammed has been stranded there ever since.
Abdulahad landed in Bermuda three years later, where he says the people have embraced the Uyghurs; he’s now working 10-12 hour days at a construction company, supporting his wife as she raises their three children in Toronto.
Ayub Mohammed’s daughter Azia and son Hamzah in Canada. Handout
Memut could not be reached for comment, but Mohammed and Abdulahad tell similar, if unusual stories. Both say they left Xinjiang for Pakistan with hopes of reaching other countries and studying in those places. Mohammed says he obtained a visa to the U.S., Abdulahad tried and failed to get one for Egypt. Both travelled across the unguarded border into Afghanistan after hearing that the Pakistanis were deporting Uyghurs back to China.
They ended up in a community of Uyghurs, as the U.S. came under attack, and then invaded the country harbouring al Qaeda.
The Americans at one time accused the 18-year-old Mohammed of seeking training at what they said was a camp run by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a terror group focused on China’s control of Xinjiang. (That earlier Guantanamo assessment, obtained by Wikileaks, remains prominent online today.) But by 2005, there was a new appraisal and American lawyers admitted in court documents that he and other Uyghurs were “no longer classified as enemy combatants.”
Washington was already lobbying various countries, including Canada, to accept Mohammed and others.
If they knew me, they would know I’m innocent, that I’m a non-violent person, that I’m against any kind of violence and bloodshed
“It is something that I worked on directly and found extremely frustrating,” Schriver, assistant under-secretary of state in the Bush administration, told that congressional hearing in 2009. “It was the morally courageous countries that have now stepped forward.”
The Bush and Obama White Houses, though, nixed allowing any of them to actually stay in the States.
Mehmet Tohti of the Uyghur Canadian Society said he also pressed Canada to accept some of the detainees in the late 2000s. One reason the Harper government declined, he said, was concern that the gesture might undermine attempts to help Hussein Celil, a Uyghur-Canadian jailed in China on what many observers consider fabricated terrorism charges.
Celil remains behind bars.
The U.S. labelled the little-known ETIM a terrorist outfit in 2002, a time when it was anxious to win China’s support for the war on terror. The United Nations, Canada and others have since done the same, as Chinese authorities blamed the group for a series of deadly attacks.
At the same time, Beijing continues to conflate Uyghur unrest generally — itself triggered by suppression of the community’s language and religion — with terrorism, claiming that its re-education camps are designed to curb extremism .
The Canadian visa officer said she did not believe Mohammed when he denied being a member of ETIM, citing in part his comment in an interview that “we (the Uyghurs in Afghanistan) were fighting” for independence from China.
Mohammed told the Post through an interpreter that he failed to express himself clearly in his imperfect English. He had meant only to say all Uyghurs “struggle” against Chinese repression, not that he was training to fight physically.
Indeed, his advocates in the U.S. say he – and the other Uyghurs – would make excellent Canadians. Sabin Willett, a corporate bankruptcy lawyer who did pro-bono work on the cases, says he and his wife visited the “lads” in Albania, and were particularly charmed by Mohammed.
“He was the youngest,” recalled Willett. “He was just a kid, a very charming, sweet kid. You wondered ‘How in hell did he get caught up in this mess?’”
In Albania, an anonymous donor funded Mohammed’s degree at the private – and ironically named – New York University. Then he started chatting on the Hi5 social-media site with a Uyghur-Canadian woman, Aierken Mailikaimu, who had posted a photograph of a fig tree from Artux, which turned out to be the hometown for both.
A year later, she arrived in Albania with her father, and a wedding with the woman Mohammed calls “the love of my life” ensued. The oldest of their children, daughter Azia, is now eight, but the couple wants to raise them in Canada.
Canadians have nothing to fear, he says.
“If they knew me, they would know I’m innocent, that I’m a non-violent person, that I’m against any kind of violence and bloodshed,” Mohammed says. “I’m the kind of person who cares not just about human rights but cares for all living things. Who feels hurt when other living things hurt.”
(Headline modified at 3:15 p.m. to reflect that only one of three denied entry so far.)
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