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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

D.C. Uighurs wait to take in Gitmo detainees

October 13, 2008

By MATTHEW BARAKAT
The Washington Post
October 10, 2008

McLEAN, Va. (AP)-- For centuries, hospitality to weary travelers has
been part of the Uighur culture. The Uighur land in what is now the
far western province of China carried merchants traversing the famed Silk Road.

So in many ways it was only natural for Elshat Hassan, 46, of McLean,
to open his home to the most weary of his countrymen. He plans to
host one of 17 Uighurs who have been detained by the U.S. for nearly
seven years at Guantanamo Bay.

"They will be free, finally," Hassan said of the detainees,
describing plans to prepare a traditional meal for Uighur guests:
polo, a pilaf consisting of rice, lamb, carrots and onions.

The tiny Uighur (WEE-gur) community in the Washington, D.C. area has
been largely anonymous, but is suddenly in the spotlight: A federal
judge this week brushed aside White House objections and ordered the
17 Uighurs to be freed inside the United States.

Under the judge's order, the detainees will live in the D.C. area
with Uighur-Americans who have agreed to take them in. The detainees
were to have arrived on Friday, but the judge's ruling has been put
on hold while an appeals court reviews the ruling.

Nury Turkel, a past president of the Uyghur American Association,
frequently gets blank stares from Americans when he identifies
himself as a Uighur-American. But he has a ready answer.

"We're just like Tibet," Turkel, 38, says. "Just like the Tibetans,
Uighurs face discrimination ... and brutal oppression under Chinese rule."

With no Dalai Lama to promote their cause, the Uighurs' bid for
autonomy and cultural survival in their Central Asian homeland north
of Tibet has largely been anonymous.

Turkel guessed that perhaps only 1,000 or so Uighurs live in the
United States, with the largest concentration in the Washington area.
Most have come as refugees or to seek higher education, and he said
Uighurs have one of the highest approval rates in the U.S. for asylum
applications.

The Uighurs are Turkic ethnically and linguistically. They are
Muslims, generally regarded as moderate in their beliefs. Human
rights groups say the Chinese government has been brutal in its
suppression of Uighur culture and religion.

The Chinese government says the Uighur detainees are part of a
dangerous international Islamic terrorist group called the East
Turkestan Islamic Movement and has demanded the detainees' extradition.

The Bush administration concedes that the Uighurs never intended to
fight the United States, but insists the detainees are still a danger
because they trained with radical Islamic militants in Afghanistan.

The detainees' supporters in the Uighur-American community say
Uighurs are staunchly pro-American.

Hassan said that despite the unfair treatment the detainees have
received, the fact that the United States is refusing Chinese demands
for extradition will go a long way toward damping anti-American
sentiments that may have festered among the detainees during their detention.

"If they go to China, their destiny is death," Hassan said. "They
have suffered for seven years in Guantanamo, and it's unfair. ... But
compared with death, they're still alive."

In Beijing on Thursday, the Foreign Ministry insisted the detainees
would be treated lawfully if extradited.

"Some people may worry whether these people could be tortured in
China, I believe this is biased. China is a country under the rule of
law, and forbids torture by any Chinese authorities, be they
judiciary or public security," said ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

A U.S. university professor who has studied the Uighurs and traveled
frequently to China's Xinjiang province, or East Turkistan as it's
called by Uighurs, said the comparisons of the political situations
in Tibet and Xinjiang are generally valid.

The professor, who requested anonymity because he fears speaking on
the record about the Uighurs could prompt Chinese authorities to bar
him from traveling there, said the Uighurs' struggles with Beijing
have largely been nationalistic and secular, rather than part of a
broad international Islamic terror group like al-Qaida.

In his travels in China, the professor said Xinjiang stands out as
sort of a boom town, with rapid new construction to accommodate a
growing population and an increasing middle class.

He said that both Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese who are rapidly
moving into the region appear to be benefiting from the boom, but
Uighurs say they are disadvantaged.

The influx of ethnic Han combined with Chinese suppression of Uighur
religion and language is destroying the culture, Uighurs say. And
Uighurs are barred from the best jobs and economic opportunities.

"The Chinese government does everything it can to dilute the Uighur
culture," Turkel said.

Hassan said he does not anticipate neighbors reacting fearfully to
the presence of a Guantanamo detainee. When his co-workers at Booz
Allen Hamilton learned of his plans to sponsor a detainee, several
extended dinner invitations when the time comes.
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