Berlin is being asked to take in nine Guantanamo inmates. So far the development is perceived as a first test of trans-Atlantic relations under President Barack Obama. In Germany, there are legitimate questions about the Uighur Chinese it is being asked to take in –but the Interior Ministry also appears to be buying time in an election year.
Yes, he travelled to Afghanistan. Yes, he learned to fire a semi-automatic weapon there. â€œBut I only ever used the weapon once, I shot four or five bullets. And never at people. And never in combat situations.â€
Thatâ€™s what Hassan Anvar told his captors at Guantanamo about his time at a training camp in the mountainous Tora Bora region in Afghanistan. He also told them that he doesnâ€™t hold a grudge against the United States of America or its allies. â€œI went to the camp to train to fight against the Chinese,â€ he said.
Yet these are the kinds of quotes — and stories — that have been exciting debate in Berlin and worrying the regional governments in states like Bavaria. Because if it was up to the Obama administration, individuals like Anvar would already be on a plane bound for Germany — most likely, with a one-way ticket and best wishes for the future. A future somewhere as far away as possible from the United States, that is.
Following the first visit by US Attorney General Eric Holder to Berlin the week before last, representatives of the German government also met with Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs and the senior diplomat who has, among his responsibilities, the task of trying to resettle as many as 60 of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo outside of the US.
Officially Holder said there were no specific requests being made of Germany — but then Fried quietly passed on a list of nine potential names. Hassan Anvarâ€™s name was on that list as were eight others, all of whom have much in common with him.
Anvar, who is in his mid-30s, comes from the village of Tashkoruq in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Anvar is from the Uighur ethnic group, mainly resident in eastern and central Asia. The Uighurs make up almost half of the population of the Xinjiang region, are mainly Muslim and have been the subject of brutal repression by the Chinese. Shortly after the September 11 attacks in the US, and under some pressure from the Chinese government, Washington moved to recognize the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — to which Anvar and the other potentially Germany-bound Uighurs belong — as a terrorist organization. As a result more than 20 ETIM members were brought to Guantanamo as â€œenemy combatants.â€
The Obama administrationâ€™s wish to grant Anvar and his fellow prisoners asylum of some sort in Europe has divided German politicians. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has used the opportunity to send a friendly message to Washington saying she is ready to offer her â€œhelp and supportâ€ in this matter.
During their weekend party conference, the Greens declared their willingness to accept the Uighurs. Obamaâ€™s planned closure of Guantanamo should not be hindered â€œby refusal, or by protracted consideration,â€ they said.
Meanwhile Bavariaâ€™s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann — of the Christian Social Union, Bavariaâ€™s sister party to Merkelâ€™s Christian Democrats — called the request an â€œimpositionâ€ by the US. â€œWe donâ€™t need people like this in Germany,â€ he told the mass circulation tabloid Bild. â€œIt would be extremely naive (of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) to let these people into the country.â€ Steinmeier himself, though, has kept relatively quiet on the subject — though he has been consistent in his support of the Obama administration.
In addition to issues of security, however, Steinmeier is equally concerned with the issueâ€™s foreign policy implications. Firstly, this is one of the initial tests of the new trans-Atlantic relationship between the central Europeans and the Americans since the change of administration in the White House. At the same time Steinmeier, who is also the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, has to consider the damage it could do to at-times volatile German-Chinese relations. As soon as the Obama administrationâ€™s wishes with regard to the Uighur prisoners were made public, a varie ty of Chinese diplomats paid a visit to Steinmeierâ€™s offices. What, they wondered, was the German position on this Uighur question? The Chinese were told that a final decision had not yet been made.
Interior Minister Wolfgang SchÃ¤uble (CDU), for his part, is likely to resist accepting the Uighurs. His ministry is responsible for deciding whether the former Guantanamo prisioners will pose a security threat to Germany. And, after a first look at the information that Washington had supplied about the prisoners, the German reaction was curt. Some very important questions remain unanswered, August Hanning, a top official at the Interior Ministry wrote to Reinhard Silberberg, his colleague in the Foreign Ministry. There are at least four issues that need to be clarified, he said. The relatively thin dossiers on the prisoners indicated they had gone through a terrorist training camp and had spread propaganda for their organization ETIM. â€œSo we can assume a potential for danger, at least in the abstract,â€ Hanning said.
But, Hanning continued, the dossiers from Guantanamo did not touch upon whether the prisoners could have become more radicalized during their years at Guantanamo. He also asked whether the Americans would ever allow the Uighurs onto American soil. And finally, Hanning wanted to know why the Uighurs could not be returned to Kirgizia or Kazakhstan, where they had lived before they were imprisoned. â€œItâ€™s not really obvious to me why exactly the German Federal Republic should be taking these individuals in,â€ he said.
The letter can be read as a preliminary rejection by the Interior Ministry in addition to being a campaign ploy ahead of German general elections this autumn. Furthermore, SchÃ¤uble is aware that the Obama administration will be unable to answer the questions in full. It is a ploy for time and an attempt to push the problem back onto the Foreign Ministry and through them, back onto the Americans. Before the questions are answered in Washington, no final decisions can be made in Berlin, seems to be the message. SchÃ¤uble, of course, knows that he probably wonâ€™t be able to refuse indefinitely, but until then he wants to raise the price for his co-operation as high as possible.
In a reply to SchÃ¤uble, the Foreign Ministry suggests that a solid catalogue of questions be developed, which can then be forwarded to Washington through diplomatic channels. If, after this, questions still remain, â€œGerman security experts and medical personnel could be flown to Washington for further talks, and possibly even to Guantanamo to talk with the Uighurs themselves.â€
Then again, even if the dossiers were more helpful, SchÃ¤uble would still have a dilemma on his hands. Because basically it would be almost impossible to come to a decision about the Uighur prisoners from the information the Germans have been given. After all, the incriminating evidence comes from a place where prisoners were regularly abused and where human and legal rights were often ignored. In fact, outside of=2 0the dossiers themselves, American judges have cleared the Uighur prisoners of any suspicion that they were â€œenemy combatants.â€ And even the US Administration has declared them not guilty.
Still, SchÃ¤ubleâ€™s security analysts have to take all details into account. The 29 year old Uighur, Adel Noori, for example, spat at his wardens. Arkin Mahmud, 44, made death threats against his guards and also against former US President George W. Bush; heâ€™s also known to have thrown excrement. A particularly difficult case could be that of Ahmad Tourson, 38, who acknowledged he had worked for ETIM and received weapons training.
As for Abdul Razak, 30, his US captors said that he received military training and that he travelled to Tora Bora where Osama bin Laden also was. However Razak told his lawyers that the first time he had even heard about ETIM, let alone al-Qaida, was in the prison. Which is why the US lawyer Seema Saifee, who represents four of the nine former prisoners potentially bound for Germany, considers the dossiers simply absurd. â€œAmerican judges have rejected these allegations yet now other countries are supposed to make a decision based upon them,â€ she complains.
Of all of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners, the Uighurs are the group â€œwith the least risksâ€, argue high ranking US Officials. And there is also a high possibility of successful integration into the German community, mainly because of a large Uighur community in Munich. There are around 500 Uighurs living in the Bavarian st ate capital, making it one of the largest such exile communities in the world. They have their own fast food outlets and supermarkets, not to mention a common language and culture. One of the former prisoners, Noori, even has a cousin there, whoâ€™s been living in Munich for the past nine years.
Still after the lukewarm reception that US Attorney General Holder got during his European trip, Washington now seems to realize they too might have to take a couple of Uighurs in before European allies like Germany do the same — if for no other reason than to present a common front to the Chinese.
Former State Department legal advisor John Bellinger believes it is â€œvery probableâ€ that the Obama Administration will do this. You cannot expect the Europeans to do what you are not prepared to do yourselves, said another high ranking American official, who believes that Germany could eventually be asked to consider further prisoners of different nationalities.
When it comes to the Uighurs, time is running out for the Obama adminstration. A US judge ordered the release of all 17 of the remaining Uighur prisoners last October. A court of appeals upheld that ruling, but another lawsuit is pending. Obama has to hurry — otherwise American judges may force him to allow the former prisoners into America. Meanwhile his attorney general is looking on the bright side, in the hope that the matter can be resolved in good time. As Holder said in Berlin, â€œnowhere have I heard a definitive no.â€