Photo credit: Talya Sanders
Editor's note: Peter Jan Honigsberg will be appearing at Powell's City of Books on Sunday, January 26, 2020, to discuss A Place Outside the Law. See our events calendar for more details.
I knew very little about the Uighurs — Turkic-speaking Sunni
Muslims from East Turkistan in China — and their culture when I
founded Witness to Guantánamo in 2008. (I had created Witness to
Guantánamo to document rule of law violations and human rights
abuses at the American military detention center in Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba.) However, I received a crash course on the Uighurs a
year later when Witness to Guantánamo began filming interviews of
former detainees, including the group of Uighurs who had been
released to Albania.
China seized East Turkistan in the middle of the 20th century, in the same time period as when China overran Tibet. When
China gained control of East Turkistan, it sought to destabilize
and destroy the indigenous Uighur culture. East Turkistan was
renamed the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in Central Asia. The
government in Beijing encouraged and incentivized the Han Chinese
to settle in Xinjiang, to start their own businesses and to
promote and expand the Han Chinese culture into the Uighur
community. Classes were taught in Mandarin. Chinese men were
encouraged to marry Uighur women. It was a deliberate effort to
forcibly assimilate the minority Uighurs into the majority Han
Chinese culture and eradicate the Uighur culture.
China’s oppression of the Uighur people has been in the headlines
for the past few years. Since 2018, more than one million Uighurs
have been held in Chinese “reeducation” or detention camps. The
Uighurs are not allowed to speak their language or to practice
their religion. Sophisticated surveillance and facial recognition
software keep track of Uighurs living in the cities and
countryside, outside the reeducation/detention camps. China
requires the Uighurs to install an app on their phones to permit
the Chinese government to monitor their communications and to
track their locations. Few Uighurs dare to worship at a mosque
because the Chinese government has placed surveillance cameras at
When Witness to Guantánamo filmed interviews with the Uighurs in
Albania, we heard remarkable stories. The Uighurs had gone to
Afghanistan for political or economic reasons. Some men were there
to arm themselves before returning to China with the goal of
retaking their homeland. Others were simply looking for a better
life. One young Uighur told us that he arrived in Afghanistan at
the age of 16. He wanted to reach Turkey, and from there he hoped
to emigrate to the United States. But that never happened. He was
captured and ended up in Guantánamo.
The Uighurs saw the United States as their great
A total of 22 Uighurs had been captured in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. They were seized a few months after the terrorist
attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Like many of
the 780 detainees who were held in Guantánamo, the Uighurs were
captured by Afghan and Pakistani soldiers and then sold for bounty
to the American military — which purchased the men for an average
of $3,000 to $5,000 each. The American military had dropped fliers
over Afghanistan offering bounties for “Taliban and Al-Qaeda
fighters.” Every Muslim stranger was fair game. The Uighurs, being
Muslim and having no connections to the local culture, were
vulnerable targets for ransom.
In interviewing the Uighur detainees, I learned that they were at
first quite elated to have been transferred into American custody.
The Uighurs greatly admired America’s commitment to the rule of
law and human rights — values that they believed epitomized the
United States. They understood that the American military would
need to hold them briefly for questioning. But, they also believed
that the Americans knew that the American military would release
them upon realizing that their enemy was China and not the United
States. The Uighurs saw the United States as their great
The Uighurs were wrong. The American military did not release
them. At Guantánamo, the Uighurs were physically and
psychologically tortured, just like the other Guantánamo
detainees. The American military held the Uighurs in Guantánamo
for years, some for more than a decade.
Because China considered the Uighurs terrorists, and would execute
them if they were returned, the United States had to find
countries that would accept them upon their release.
Unfortunately, even after the Uighurs were transferred to other
countries, they still could not be reunited with their families.
China would not permit the families of the detainees to leave
China to reunite with their sons, fathers, and husbands who had
been held in Guantánamo.
Fast forward to March 2019, when I moderated a panel discussion on
China’s detention of more than one million Uighurs in detention
camps, and on the destruction of the Uighur culture in China
today. The panel included Uighur translator Rushan Abbas. Abbas
had been born into a Uighur family in Urumqi, the capital of
Xinjiang. In 1989, at age 21, she emigrated to the United
States and enrolled at Washington State University. After the
terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States
government hired her to serve as the official Uighur interpreter.
One year later, she quit and began her work with the attorneys
representing the 22 Uighurs held in Guantánamo.
I got to know Rushan Abbas quite well over the decade of our
Witness to Guantánamo work. She had arranged for Witness to
Guantánamo to travel to five countries to interview 13 of the 22
Uighurs who had been detainees in Guantánamo.
The panel discussion was before an overflow crowd at the
University of California, Berkeley. During the presentation,
people stood up in protest, and demanded that the panel provide
“both sides” of the discussion. We tried to encourage the
protesters to wait for the question period to begin. However, the
protesters would not relent and continued to disrupt the panel
presentations. Similar protests and disruptions have been linked
to the Chinese government and its supporters at other Uighur
Rushan Abbas is a powerful advocate for the Uighurs and often
considered the “voice” of the Uighurs. She has worked nonstop,
and has traveled around the world, telling the story of the mass
detentions of the Uighurs and the destruction of their culture in
China. Last year she told me the following story:
In September 2018, she spoke before the Hudson Institute, a
conservative think tank in Washington, DC. Six days later, her
sister disappeared from her home in China. Rushan Abbas is certain
that her sister was taken to a detention camp in retaliation for
Abbas’s advocacy on behalf of the Uighurs. More than a year later,
in November 2019, Rushan Abbas still has not heard from her
Rushan Abbas told me that despite the torture, abuse, and
mistreatment that the Uighurs endured in Guantánamo, there is a
silver lining. Before 9/11, the world knew little or nothing about
the Uighurs. The capture of these men brought Uighur life and
culture into the media spotlight. As Abbas explained, the 22
Uighurs put the Uighur people and culture “on the map” years ago.
Today, Rushan Abbas carries their voices with her when she travels
to events around the world, representing the Uighur people and
condemning the brutal treatment of the Uighurs in China.
A total of 780 men were held in Guantánamo. Forty men still remain
nearly 18 years after the detention center opened on January 11,
2002. They are likely to die in Guantánamo, never charged, never
tried, and never convicted of a crime. Nearly all of the people
held in Guantánamo were detained without charges. Many were held
for more than a decade. No other country in the world has ever
detained people for that long without charges.
For a decade, beginning in 2008, Witness to Guantánamo filmed
interviews with 158 people across 20 countries. Fifty-two of the
people were former detainees. The others were prison guards,
interrogators, interpreters, medical personnel, civilian (habeas)
and military (JAG) lawyers, prosecutors, members of the
intelligence community, human rights advocates, chaplains,
reporters, high-level government and military officials, and
family members of detainees. Witness to Guantánamo donated the
interviews to Duke University in early 2019. They will be posted
online in June 2020.
Peter Jan Honigsberg
is professor at the University of San
Francisco School of Law, and the founder of Witness to Guantánamo.
His book, A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices of Guantánamo
, tells the compelling,
heartbreaking, and inspiring stories of detainees and other people
who lived and worked in the Guantánamo detention center, and how
America’s values of the rule of law and human rights were
abandoned in the detention center.