China protests US' prisoner transfer

Updated: 2014-01-03 08:42

By ZHOU WA and ZHANG FAN in Beijing and CHEN WEIHUA in Washington (China Daily)

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China has opposed the US decision to send the last three Chinese Uygur terrorist suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay to Slovakia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Thursday, adding that China has always maintained that these terrorist suspects should be handed over to China rather being transferred to a third country.

"China firmly opposes any country accepting those suspects for any reason," he said.

According to a Pentagon statement on Tuesday, three terrorist suspects -- Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper -- who are members of the Uygur ethnic group, were to be moved from Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba. Slovakia's interior ministry later confirmed that the central European country would take in the three men.

Qin said the suspects were members of the separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which is a small Islamic extremist group based in China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

In 2002, the US designated the group as a supporter of terrorist activity. In the same year, the United Nations added the group to its list of terrorists and terrorist supporters associated with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

"They are genuine terrorists. They not only threaten China's security, they will threaten the security of the country that receives them," Qin said in a daily news briefing.

"China hopes that the relevant country ... does not give asylum to terrorists, and sends them back to China as soon as possible."

Slovakia, a member state of the European Union, first accepted three Guantanamo prisoners in 2010, and the ministry said the latest transfer is the continuation of an EU-US agreement aimed at helping President Barack Obama close the prison.

The US said it was grateful to Slovakia for its "humanitarian gesture".

The US has so far failed to condemn terrorist activities by Uygur separatists against civilians in China, drawing widespread criticism for its double standards on the issue.

"The US has never changed these double standards, which are also shown in other cases," said Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism research center at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

"If this is not an example of double standards, what is?" said Zhu Zhiqun, professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University.

Zhu believes the case will have a negative impact on anti-terrorism cooperation between the US and China. "The US released the three Uygurs and transferred them to Slovakia because ‘they do not pose a threat to the US'. This is a very shaky excuse. Uygur radicals do not attack American police or kill American civilians, but they do pose a security threat inside China," Zhu said.

He said the case reveals the limits in anti-terrorism cooperation, as well as lack of trust between the two countries. "The US immediately condemned bombings in Russia, but has not done so several weeks after suicide bombings in Tiananmen Square," he said.

"Terrorism may take different forms or result from different situations, but all kinds of violence is inexcusable and must be stopped. As the global leader in the anti-terror campaign, the US should be consistent and condemn all terrorist acts and work with other countries to curb terrorism globally," Zhu said.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US and China have some overlapping interests in fighting terrorism, but they also have differences, mostly over whether various groups in Xinjiang should be considered terrorists.

"This is a long standing difference, it is not new. It is unlikely to undermine cooperation where shared interests exist," she said.

Glaser believes that since this is the last of the Uygur detainees, the issue will no longer be a thorn in the side of the relationship going forward.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Thursday that the US has long maintained its position that it will not repatriate Uygurs to China from Guantanamo due to the US humane treatment policies, implying that some of them might be abused once back in China.

"As we always said, we are taking all possible steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo Bay. And it is certainly our position that these latest transfers mark an important step in furthering that objective," Harf told the daily briefing.

Harf said that the US remains deeply concerned about discrimination and restrictions placed on Uygurs and other Muslims in China. "We raised that issue with the Chinese. We certainly don't want this to impact our broad relationship," she said.

Harf said that broadly speaking, there is never any justification for violence against civilians, but she added that in these specific cases, the US takes a look at the facts and makes its own determinations.

In a briefing early this week, Harf did not condemn recent violence in Xinjiang and instead called on the Chinese security forces to exercise restraint.

"It is irrational for the US to call for Chinese security forces to exercise restraint, given that it has never exercised restraint itself when dealing with terrorists," said Li of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

The US has detained 22 Uygurs at Guantanamo since 2002. Most were captured near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in late 2001, and were believed to have trained with the Taliban.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.