Uncertainty shrouds 17 unusual detainees

In this Nov. 19, 2008 image, which was approved for release by the U.S. military, a Uighur captive peers through a window at Camp Iguana, a barbed-wire-ringed compound where 17 detainee citizens of China await asylum at the U.S. Navy Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In this Nov. 19, 2008 image, which was approved for release by the U.S. military, a Uighur captive peers through a window at Camp Iguana, a barbed-wire-ringed compound where 17 detainee citizens of China await asylum at the U.S. Navy Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. ASSOCIATED PRESS

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- At Camp Iguana, 17 Muslims from China taken captive in Afghanistan seven years ago now get Pepsi, Ping Pong and a 42-inch plasma screen for sports and religious videos.

They asked for a live sheep recently to celebrate Islam's holy Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and were rebuffed -- even before commanders realized they would need a super-sharp knife to slaughter it. They asked to watch some soccer matches and got hours of World Cup and other highlights.

What they can't get is an answer to the question of when they might leave this place, ordered by a judge in October, and what nation might grant them asylum.

''They're very compliant -- with everything. Very understanding. And patient, actually,'' said a Navy chief petty officer who oversees guards at the barbed-wire-ringed camp.

While Defense Secretary Robert Gates has staffers in Washington writing plans to close the prison camps, the saga of these 17 men called Uighurs (pronounced Wee-ghurs) shows what the architects of any new detention policy are up against.

Gates wants Congress to write legislation to block former terror suspects here from asylum on U.S. shores.

But that's precisely the remedy of lawyers who have for years helped these men sue for their freedom. Because they are from a Muslim minority in China, all sides agree that sending them back would doom them to religious persecution, perhaps torture, in their communist homeland.

Uighurville, as it is known, is the latest Guantánamo lab in the U.S. experiment in offshore military detention.

On a recent Saturday, an older Uighur was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the compound reading a Koran, while another man squatted nearby, washing both his hands and feet for midday prayer.

Pentagon rules ban the media from talking to them.

So a Miami Herald reporter stood just outside a chain-linked fence and watched while a Navy guard learned by walkie-talkie what DVDs the men borrowed from the detainee library -- footage of the recent pilgrimage to Mecca, A Decade of Great Goals, Matches and Good Morning Kuwait, breakfast news from the oil-rich emirate.


For years, the men were kept like any other enemy combatants here -- in austere, chilly steel-and-cement cells copied from a Michigan prison. Days revolved around one recreation period, three meals delivered to each man's solo cell, and the echo of others' prayers through the walls.

Now they pray together, eat together and kick a soccer ball around a dirt patch at Camp Iguana, a prime piece of prison real estate on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Uighurville ''is a significant improvement,'' said lawyer Seema Saifee, one of several attorneys who shuttle to meet the men and noted they have ``greater mobility and access to fresh air and sunlight.''

It is a space roughly the size of a McDonald's drive-thru and parking lot and the only place in the sprawling prison camp complex where sleeping captives aren't locked up at night.

Plywood huts provide shelter for sleeping, eating and prayer -- and one holds the flat screen TV. Guards say the Uighurs put mops and brooms inside, and they divvy up the chores, like a platoon. There's no phone, and the mail is slow, screened by the military. Guards set up a wash machine inside, and the men now launder their underwear and dry it in the sun.

Saifee held her attorney-client meetings this month through a chain-link fence that encircles their encampment. She found them ``tired, sullen and despondent.''

''They are being confined like caged animals,'' she said. ``They want to be released.''

But no one knows when.

In October, guards say, the men celebrated like kids upon learning that U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered them brought to his court in Washington, D.C., a move that edged them closer to U.S. asylum. They ran around the compound, their arms outstretched in imitation of the planes they can see come and go from Guantánamo.

The 1,000 or so Uighur-American community near Washington, D.C. teamed up with the Lutheran Refugee Service to offer to sponsor the men. Religious groups in Tallahassee also volunteered to resettle three of them.

Instead, an order came from Washington to detain them as a population apart as though they are no longer enemy combatants. With the courts still studying detainee files and more release orders expected, Camp Iguana could be a model for a coming, more liberal phase of Guantánamo detainees.

But absent a diplomatic breakthrough or change of heart by the incoming Obama administration, says former U.S. State Department lawyer Vijay Padmanabhan, Camp Iguana could emerge as a symbol contrary to the one of closure the new government is courting.

''Building new structures and expanding the camp there cuts in the face of the image that the United States is trying to cultivate,'' he said.

Until recently, Padmanabhan's job was to seek third nation resettlement for the Uighurs and others on behalf of the Bush administration. He discovered ``nobody wanted to displease the Chinese government.''

Now he is a professor at Yeshiva University and urges the new administration to ''think hard'' about bringing the Uighurs to America, to encourage other nations to take in some detainees, too.

''People want Guantánamo closed, but they don't want Guantánamo detainees in their backyard,'' he said.

Camp Iguana is not waiting to see what becomes of the latest chapter of Guantánamo at the crossroads.


Prison camp contractors are adding a 40-by-60-foot soccer yard. And the Uighurs have a little garden. They planted orange seeds and have inch-high seedlings they are cultivating.

Says Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, the prison camps commander: ``What that says about their thoughts on long-term detention, I leave it up to you.''

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