THE NEW SHERIFF in town at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has already set a different tone by firing officials responsible for the Walter Reed scandal. But there is a Walter Reed-style scandal of human rights abuses now festering at the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba that becomes his responsibility the longer it continues under his watch. Gates can begin the process of restoring the United States' reputation as a respecter of human rights by releasing 17 Guantanamo detainees from China.
The 17 are Uighurs (pronounced wee-gurs) -- members of a Muslim minority that feels oppressed by Beijing. They had been living in a village in Afghanistan when the United States began its war there in 2001. They have said they fled US bombing for shelter in Pakistan, where they were taken into custody by Pakistanis who were getting bounties of as much as $5,000 a head for captives. In 2006, after five were declared not to be enemy combatants, Albania accepted them as refugees. The military acknowledges that none of the 17 remaining is considered enough of a threat to be scheduled at this point for one of the up to 80 trials planned for this year.
In fact, all but one would have left by now if the United States could find a placethat would take them. But between former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's rhetoric about Guantanamo detainees being the "worst of the worst " and the unwillingness of countries to incur China's disfavor, no country, including Albania, has stepped forward to accept any more.
The United States will not release them to China, for fear of the treatment they would receive there. Since there are about 2,000 Uighurs living in the United States, this would be a logical home for them, but the Department of Homeland Security says no. Gates should solve this problem, even if it means overruling Homeland Security and even if it means they become sought after for network television broadcasts about their treatment in US custody.
They would have much to tell. Like hundreds of detainees who have been in and out of Guantanamo since 2002, the Uighurs would likely have been released soon after their capture -- if it were not for the China connection. In 2002 the United States was seeking China's support in the United Nations for the war the Bush administration planned against Iraq. Washington agreed to put a Uighur resistance movement on a list of terrorist organizations. It also allowed Chinese intelligence agents to come to Guantanamo and interrogate the Uighur detainees, an experience that made the detainees fearful for the safety of their families back in China's Xinjiang region.
Until December, the Uighurs still at Guantanamo had been able to socialize with one another in their Turkic language, which is quite different from Arabic or the Afghan languages most of the other detainees speak. But there has been a crackdown at the base after three suicides and a riot last year marked the beginning of the tenure of a new commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris. Harris has put the Uighurs and many other detainees into a new 180-cell building called Camp Six where the detainees spend at least 22 hours of each day in isolation. The military says the Uighurs were put there either because they attacked guards or trashed their quarters during the riot last May.
Sabin Willett, a Boston lawyer with Bingham McCutchen who has been doing pro bono work for the Uighurs, links their assignment to Camp Six to a filing he made seeking their release. He visited them in January and said that the isolation, a punishment reserved for the worst-behaved inmates in civilian US prisons, is taking a toll.
A Uighur who had been friendly now looks unsmiling and blank and taps his foot constantly on the floor, Willet said. "His whole affect changed," and he said he had begun to hear voices. Unless something is done, the lawyer said, "We will have created an insane asylum in Camp Six. There will be people who are insane when this is over."
When this will be over is hard to foresee. The United States originally established the facility at Guantanamo as a detention center to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists before they were quickly put on trial. None has been yet. No one envisioned Guantanamo as a long-term prison. "We have no desire to be the world's jailer," said Pentagon spokesman Commander Jeffrey Gordon in an interview.
In Afghanistan, Taliban officials have benefited from an amnesty, but at Guantanamo the United States continues to hold Taliban foot soldiers from the 2001 battles to overthrow their regime. Individuals who had little if anything to do with the Taliban or terrorism are being radicalized by their experience in US custody. "Now we have a wolf by the ears," Willett said.
A bill passed last year by Congress even strips detainees of their habeas corpus rights to challenge their continued incarceration. After a federal circuit court last month upheld the constitutionality of that law, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will rule on it until later this year at the earliest. Before that, Congress could restore habeas corpus rights under bills now pending, but there is little chance that it could muster two-thirds majorities in both houses to override an expected veto from President Bush.
So Guantanamo will continue as an international symbol of this country's retreat from its rule-of-law traditions. Gates has wisely decided not to go ahead with a planned $100 million court complex for the base. He could make it even clearer that he is changing the self-destructive course the country is on there by releasing the Uighurs.