East Turkestan Independence Movement

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See also: Uighur
The Kök Bayraq (Blue Banner), first flown in 1933, has become a symbol of the East Turkestan independence movement.

There is little question that the East Turkestan Independence Movement is ethnically Uighur, from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, predominantly Muslim, and has engaged in terrorist acts in its drive for making East Turkestan independent of China. It is less clear, however, if it is part of a worldwide jihadist movement and is making cause with Salafist and other extreme Muslim groups. One of the most challenging aspects is if it received support from al-Qaeda, which it probably did, but if it planned to use that support anywhere other than China.

The U.S. froze its assets in August 2002, and, in September 2002, the UN added it to the "list of terrorists and terrorist supporters associated with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network." In May 2002, according to the U.S. State Department, two ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for allegedly plotting attacks on the U.S. embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, as well as other U.S. interests abroad.[1] Some critics have said that this was a U.S. initiative to gain Chinese support in Security Council negotiations to support the U.S. position on Iraq. Not long before this action, the U.S. "had accused China of using the war against terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on political dissent in the region, and castigated the Chinese military for human rights violations against Uighur nationalists." [2]

Chinese position

Central Eurasian expert Gardner Bovingdon, of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, said China's playing of the terrorist card is part of "its strategy for exploiting the 'global war on terror' to serve its particular political purposes in Xinjiang, and also abroad – wherever Uighurs exist in diaspora." Bovingdon commented that China was trying to depict "Uighur separatists, and even Uighur dissidents" who are nonviolent and do not explicitly advocate independence for Xinjiang, as "terrorists." He said China is concerned that humanitarian concerns could shield Uighur or Tibetan secession. [3]

A group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), in July 2008, claimed responsibility for attacks in China, including bus bombings in Shanghai and Kunming. "The group also threatened to target the Beijing Olympics. Some counterterrorism experts claim the TIP was the ETIM using another name." The Chinese also released a report, in 2002, showing ties to al-Qaeda, but, while "experts agree hundreds of Uighurs left China to join al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, some China specialists doubt the ETIM currently has significant ties to bin Laden’s network. Beijing has a long history of falsifying data, they say, and since September 11 the Chinese have repeatedly tried to paint their own campaign against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang as a flank of the U.S.-led war on terrorism—and to get Washington to drop its long-standing protests over Chinese human rights abuses in its crackdowns in Xinjiang."[4]

ETIM leader Hahsan Mahsum has denied any connections between al Qaeda and his group. He was, however, killed in ETIM leader Hahsan Mahsum was killed in raids on camps linked to al-Qaeda in 2003.[4] "U.S. officials claim that the group has a "close financial relationship" with al Qaeda" based on prisoner interrogation..."Besides Xinjiang, ETIM cells are said to be operating in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan." [2] Mackay, who interrogated some Uighur prisoners captured in Afghanistan, said they agreed to taking al-Qaeda support, but wanted to use it only in China. [5]

US imprisonment of Uighurs

The United States held, in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, 22 Uighurs who were captured in combat zones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [6] A paper, from 2004, asserts that all 22 captives are suspected of membership in ETIM were captured at an ETIM training camp.

On June 23, 2008, a Federal court of appeal overturned the determination of Huzaifa Parhat's Combatant Status Review Tribunal on June 20, 2008.[7] Parhat's was the first case to ruled on since the Supreme Court's ruling in Boumediene v. Bush. The judges ordered the Department of Defense to either: "release or transfer Parhat, or to expeditiously hold a new [military] tribunal." The Department of Justice had initially claimed it was necessary to convene a new Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which might consider new evidence supporting a determination that Parhat was indeed an "enemy combatant".[8] On September 2, 2008, the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia denied the Department of Justice plea, ensuring that there would be no re-hearing for Parhat.[9]

All 22 were suspected of membership in the ETIM. All but one have been cleared.

The question of release

Washington wants to release most of these detainees but will not return the detainees to China, which may treat them as anti-Chinese terrorists and Xinjiang separatists. Other nations, concerned about their own diplomatic relations with China, are unwilling to accept the detainees, and the United States faces a serious threat to its diplomatic relationship with China if it grants the detainees asylum in the US.[10]

All but one prisoner in Guantanamo Bay detention camp have been found not to be enemy combatants. They are free to return to their homes in China, and China wants them, but they refuse to go and the U.S. has decided not to force them to return. There is a principle in international law, called nonrefoulement, reflect a core tenet in the area of human rights: "ensuring that individuals receive at least a baseline level of treatment matters to all states, not just to the individuals’ states of nationality."[11] The principle derives from both the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees[12]and the Convention against Torture. "Although the Uighurs have been cleared of wrongdoing, China views them as domestic terrorists and wants to see them returned for trial." [3]

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, considered it necessary to protect t " the other Uighurs – those still in Guantánamo as well those four remaining in Albania, – are protected from the risk of being deported to China." He expressed European sentiment, Commissioner Hammarberg then addressed the implications presented by the long incarceration of men found to be innocent. "US authorities have the primary responsibility for correcting the damage they brought on these persons, and should offer them permits to stay. However, European countries should be prepared to receive some of these wrongly detained people as well."[3]


Five of the detainees were released in 2006, and accepted by Albania. China denounced the transfer of custody.[13]


Three Uighurs have asked for asylum in Canada, where Amnesty International, a Canadian Uighur group and several churches have asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper to “indicate to U.S. officials that Canada is prepared to accept for resettlement any of the men who wish to come to Canada”. China strongly objects, wanting a determination in an undefined international forum. [14]


Referring to US Attorney General Eric Holder's recent request that Germany accept nine of the Guantánamo Uighurs, Hammarberg says, "It is encouraging that Germany appears to be ready to welcome a group of them."

Jens Ploetner, spokesman for the German Foreign Office, said the "German Foreign Office is aware of the Chinese concerns." He added that Germany is "at the beginning of an internal discussion within the German government and with our partners," adding, "no concrete decision has been taken yet." He said that since Germany was among the first of those to call for the closure of Guantánamo, "it is therefore only logical that we are now looking into ways how to support the efforts of the new US administration to close the camp."[3]


On February 19, 2009, Adel Abdul Hakim, one of the five men sent to Albania in 2006, was accepted as a refugee by Sweden.[15] The Swedish decision was based on Sweden having a Uyghur community that could support his integration into Swedish society, and the presence of his sister, who had already been accepted as a refugee. China pressured Sweden not to accept a Uighur whom the U.S. had determined to be innocent of terrorism. [3]

United States

It was reported, in late April 2009, that the Obama Administration was considering accepting up to seven of the prisoners into the U.S., probably into the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where there is an Uighur community. The suggestion met immediate domestic and foreign resistance. [16] The Senate Minority Leader, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, immediately asked the White House to "guarantee" safety: "The question remains, as it does with all detainees held at Guantanamo: does their release make America safer? Surely the administration will not release these terrorist-trained detainees onto the streets of a US community before providing to Congress the legal rationale for doing so, and a guarantee of safety for American citizens," said McConnell.[17]

Legislation has been proposed by Republicans, called the "Keep Terrorists Out o America Act", not to accept any Guantanamo detainees. A Democratic-controlled appropriations subcommittee denied the Administration funding to close Guantanamo, until there was a clear decision on the disposition of all detainees.[18]

Different legislators from Virginia, the probable release area, have different views. Republican congressman Frank Wolf complained “I have asked for briefings from career employees at the FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security – and have been told by each agency that the Attorney General will not allow them to meet with me.” Wolf Wolf said that information he received “indicates that the Uighurs may be more dangerous than the public has been led to believe.” Wolf referred to a review board that is said to have determined that the Uighurs were too dangerous to release in the United States.[19]

Democratic representative Jim Moran, whose Alexandria district includes the Federal courthouse and detention center where most terrorist trials has been held, said that he felt the area could provide adequate security. The context of his remarks assumed detention, not release into the community.[20] He said he did not want the burden and would prefer it somewhere else, but, if necessary, "Should some of the detainees at Guantanamo be sent to the Alexandria courthouse, there is no question that people in the immediate vicinity -- more than 10,000 residents and workers during business hours -- would be affected. The strain on local law enforcement and other public safety officers would be significant. The media attention following such a decision would probably generate public outrage in some circles over safety concerns, regardless of the security measures implemented. "


  1. Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of the Treasury (September 12, 2002), Press Statement on the UN Designation of The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, PO-3415
  2. 2.0 2.1 In the Spotlight: East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), Center for Defense Information, December 9, 2002
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Ritt Goldstein (May 12, 2009), "Diplomatic memos reveal Chinese effort to block Guantánamo prisoner's asylum bid", Christian Science Monitor
  4. 4.0 4.1 Holly Fletcher, Jayshree Bajoria (July 31, 2008), The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Council on Foreign Relations
  5. Chris Mackey & Greg Miller (2004), The Interrogators: inside the secret war against al Qaeda, Little, Brown & Co., ISBN 0-316-87112-5
  6. Information paper: Uighur Detainee Population at JTF-GTMO pages 28-34. United States Department of Defense (30 October 2004). Retrieved on 2007-12-19.
  7. James Vicini. Appeals court rules for Guantanamo prisoner, Washington Post, 2008-06-23. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
  8. Lyle Denniston. Analysis: Escalating the Parhat case, Scotusblog, 2008-08-19. Retrieved on 2009-02-13.
  9. Matthew C. Waxman. Administrative Detention of Terrorists: Why Detain, and Detain Whom?, Journal of National Security Law & Policy, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-02-13.
  10. China's Uighurs trapped at Guantanamo, Asia Times, November 4, 2004
  11. Ashley S. Deeks (June 2008), Avoiding Transfers to Torture, Council on Foreign Relations Press, ISBN 978-0-87609-417-4, p. 5-7
  12. United Nations Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons (28 July 1951), Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, General Assembly resolution 429 (V) of 14 December 1950
  13. China Demands Return of Gitmo Detainees, Associated Press, May 9, 2006
  14. "Do not accept Guantanamo detainees, China urges Canada", Canada Post, February 5, 2009
  15. Ritt Goldstein (April 30, 2009), "Swedish court secures ex-Guantánamo Uighur's asylum quest", Christian Science Monitor
  16. Julian E. Barnes (April 24, 2009), "U.S. plans to accept several Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo", Los Angeles Times
  17. "Top US lawmaker opposes Guantanamo Uighur release", Agence France Presse, April 24, 2009
  18. Perry Bacon Jr. (May 8, 2009), "Lawmakers Balk at Holding Guantanamo Detainees in U.S.", Washington Post
  19. Thomas Joscelyn (May 7, 2009), "Congressman: AG Holder Stonewalling on Terrorists' Release", Weekly Standard (U.K.) blog
  20. Jim Moran (May 9, 2009), "From Guantanamo to Alexandria", Washington Post