WASHINGTON — U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, actively helped Chinese interrogators question members of China's Uighur minority, including physically restraining them so they could be photographed against their will, according to testimony presented Thursday to a congressional subcommittee.
The testimony is certain to add to the controversy over how the U.S. government has handled the Uighurs, who were turned over to U.S. troops in Afghanistan by bounty hunters who were paid $5,000 per captive.
Eventually, the Uighurs were cleared of any connection to terrorism and ordered released from Guantanamo. Nine have been freed; 13 more remain at the prison as officials scour the world for a country that will take them.
Human rights advocates have accused the U.S. of helping China gather information from the Uighurs for use against their friends and families back home, where tension between the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and the dominant Han Chinese frequently breaks into public protest and violence.
Never miss a local story.
On Sunday, 192 people died and 1,600 people were injured in one of the largest ethnic clashes in years when Chinese riot police battled Uighur protesters in Urumqi, the capital of Xingjian province in northwest China.
China insists that the Uighurs held at Guantanamo are terrorists and has protested their release to other nations.
The written testimony presented Thursday to the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international organizations and human rights was the first detailed account from the Uighurs themselves about their treatment at Guantanamo.
Jay Alan Liotta, the director of the Pentagon's Office of Detainee Policy, defended the visits by the Chinese, which took place over a day and a half in September 2002. "It has been — and currently remains — long-standing department policy that visiting foreign officials must agree that they will abide by all DOD policies, rules, and procedures," he said.
He declined, however, to talk about the Uighurs' specific allegations.
Among the Uighurs' claims:
_ U.S. military personnel treated them harshly in the days before Chinese officials visited the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in an effort to soften them up for interrogation.
_ That harsh treatment included keeping the detainees awake, subjecting them to frigid temperatures, and keeping them isolated from one another and other prisoners. All of those techniques were approved for use on detainees by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
_ U.S. soldiers followed Chinese officials' orders to restrain detainees they said weren't cooperating. One detainee testified that an American told him the harsh treatment he'd received after his interrogation had been at the direction of the Chinese.
"They attempted to take my picture; however, I did not agree to this," Ablikim Turahun wrote of his Chinese interrogators. "They called for American soldiers and ordered them to hold me, so that my picture could be taken. The soldiers grabbed me, pulling my beard, pressing on my throat, twisting my hands behind my back, and as a result my picture was taken by force."
Turahun said he was placed in isolation after the interrogations.
"The room was so very cold and dark," he wrote. "During the 20 days, it was very difficult to sleep, because I was not given any blankets or sheets by which to cover myself in this isolation room."
When he asked the guard commander why he'd been placed there, the commander replied that, it was "not his decision, but that of the Chinese delegation who had instructed that I should be put in isolation."
Two other detainees, Abu Bakker Qassim and Khalil Mamut, made similar allegations.
"I refused to be photographed. One Chinese interrogator went outside and brought in two American soldiers," Qassim wrote. "These two soldiers held me tight and the Chinese forcefully took a picture of me."
Mamut said two American soldiers placed him in shackles and chains for seven hours after his interrogation session. The next day, he was told by the Chinese that he was being punished for not cooperating with the interrogation.
"They informed me that they will take me back to China by force, and once I arrived I would be tortured, and beaten," he said.
A military panel at Guantanamo declared Qassim not an enemy combatant in March 2005, and he was released to Albania 14 months later. Mamut and Turahum also were cleared for release in 2005, but remained at Guantanamo until June 11, despite a federal court order for their release last year, and were given asylum in Bermuda.
An attorney for the Uighurs, Jason Pinney, called their interrogation by Chinese officials "their lowest point" at Guantanamo.
"All of this would not be possible without the support and cooperation of the United States," Pinney told the House Foreign Affairs oversight committee. "Military personnel went as far as forcibly holding up my clients' heads by the hair and beard so that the Chinese could take their picture."
The Uighurs said that the Chinese interrogations took place in September 2002, shortly after they arrived at Guantanamo. They were questioned for as long as nine hours without food or drink, they said.
During the interrogations, the Chinese threatened to take the Uighurs back to China, where the Chinese said the Uighurs would face harsh consequences.
Adel Adbdul Hakim, who now resides in Sweden, wrote that one interrogator told him that he was "lucky" to be in Guantanamo and that if he'd been in China, he'd be "finished."
The Uighurs also complained that information they'd given to Americans on the condition of confidentiality had been shared with the Chinese officials, who flaunted it during the interrogations.
"When some Uighur detainees refused to give their names, the Chinese interrogators said that Americans they trusted had already provided them with their photos, full names, and addresses," Qassim wrote. "They also showed the Uighurs the materials that were given by the Americans."
"When we were in Kandahar prison, we told the Americans that we would tell them everything if they would keep our materials confident. They promised not to give our materials to the Chinese, or hand us over to the Chinese."
During the hearing, subcommittee members angrily denounced the Pentagon's refusal to let them travel to Guantanamo to visit Uighurs still detained there, even after the Uighurs had agreed to meet with them.
"I reject any suggestion that the executive (branch) can define what constitutes the congressional oversight. It is not the prerogative of the executive to determine the role of the first branch of government," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., the subcommittee's chairman.
"Why do we have to keep secrets from the American people that our enemies obviously know about?" asked Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, the subcommittee's senior Republican.
The hearing was the third Delahunt has held on the Uighurs' detention.
Most of the men remain in Guantanamo because of Congress' refusal to admit former detainees into the U.S. So far, Bermuda has accepted four and Palau has publicly agreed to accept the remaining 13, but the agreement has yet to be finalized. Albania accepted five of the detainees in 2006.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY