Montreal-based Patricio Henriquez’s compassionate film Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd (2014), follows the stories of three Uyghurs unlawfully imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. East Turkestan has been annexed to China on and off for the last three centuries and was named ‘Xinjiang’ (new frontier) in the nineteenth century. China has repressed the Uyghurs for decades and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was established in 1993 to fight for the rights of their people. In the late 1990s, many activists, and ordinary citizens fearing persecution, fled across the borders into Afghanistan and Pakistan in an attempt to rebuild their lives there.
Some found a haven in the mountains, in a small Uyghur village controlled by the Taliban. In the wake of 9/11 the Americans commenced an aerial bombardment of the region and offered substantial financial rewards for those willing to aid the identification and arrest of terrorists. In total, 22 members of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority were detained and ended up incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay prison for several years despite never having engaged in armed combat. Henriquez follows the fates of Abu Bakker Qassum, Khalil Mamut and Ahmat Abdulahad, two of whom were sold to the Americans as terrorists by the Pakistani army for $5000 each. They were sent to Guantánamo where they remained, without charge or trial, for between five and seven years.
The US government declared that Guantánamo detainees would be treated as ‘unlawful combatants’, rather than prisoners of war, which effectively meant that they didn’t intend to follow the principles of the Geneva Convention. The Uyghurs were found innocent but complex US politics led to their continued detention and a recalcitrant Congress wouldn’t sign off their release. This impasse was not helped by the Chinese government continuing to claim that they were dangerous terrorists, blatantly ignoring the lack of evidence. Tragically, Barack Obama’s government couldn’t resettle them and set about trying to bribe other countries to grant them safe haven.
Henriquez’s film is largely comprised of talking-head interviews with the victims, their stalwart translator, Rushan Abbas, and the American lawyers who worked for their freedom pro-bono. Frustratingly, because the US military were so careful to cover their tracks and evidence of torture there is little footage to be had from the top security detention centre. However, the interviewees’ emotional scars are evident and it is impossible not to be moved by their testimonies. Eventually, the Uyghurs were found homes in Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Palau, Switzerland and Slovakia. There is no mention of compensation. As one of them points out, they have lost their best years in prison, in inhumane conditions. Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd is indeed a surreal journey through American politics, American hypocrisy and a warped justice system.