Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd

You know how it goes. We all do it. The barista gets your name wrong, it’s awful. Rogers raises their internet rates again, it’s terrible. Kanye acts like an idiot at an awards show, again again. It’s appalling. But really, these complaints are the frills of cushy Western living. We’re pretty lucky to live in a society where we can freely bitch about these things (just don’t talk about the environment if you’re a Canadian government scientist, but nevermind). And it’s both astounding and so very depressing to see how easily such cherished freedoms can be tossed aside by governments ostensibly founded on those very principles. What’s awful is being persecuted for your beliefs. What’s terrible is being unlawfully imprisoned for years without representation, a trial or even formal charges. What’s appalling is being held prisoner by a nation founded on basic rights, when that nation itself acknowledges your innocence, but then lacks the will to set you free. That truly is absurd, and it’s the unsettling reality that the documentary Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd sets out to reveal.

At the western edge of China is the autonomous region of Xinjiang. It’s home to a mix of people, including a large minority of Uyghurs (pronounced “weegurs”), Turkic-speaking Muslims persecuted for decades by the Chinese government. Fleeing to Afghanistan to avoid jail and beatings by state police, a small group of men find themselves out of the wok and into the fire. Because, of course, they arrive in Afghanistan in late summer 2001. In the wake of 9/11, all hell breaks loose and the U.S. starts bombing, obliterating the tiny village where they are living. A few hide in a nearby cave to survive, but their luck is minimal at best. Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd follows their surreal odyssey, as they flee toward possible safety in Pakistan, only to be sold out by a border village sheltering the wayward refugees. The U.S., you see, has offered cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of known terrorists. With half a dozen Uyghurs sitting in their midst, the villagers do the math pretty quickly, and hand the luckless sods over to the Pakistan military. From there they soon find themselves transferred to custody with the U.S. military, and catch a plane ride to a little place called Guantanamo.

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is infamous now, a debacle of the War on Terror that remains open despite efforts from lawyers to President Obama to close the damn thing down. There’s still over a hundred prisoners there, in a jail at a U.S. Naval base on Cuban soil. And for over seven years, those hapless Uyghurs were stuck there, held without access to a proper trial.

Patricio Henríquez’s documentary follows their plight with urgent intensity, incredulous and never maudlin. When the U.S. military tribunal they finally receive declares them innocent, the Uyghurs rejoice, but the military turns around and refuses to do anything to release them. Years pass with more judicial wrangling, all for nought. It’s astonishing to watch, as each victory for their rights is cast aside, willfully ignored by a government so invested in maintaining its constant worldwide vigilante action otherwise known as the war on terror. It’s bracing stuff, and it should make you angry, but it’s not overwrought. Henriquez simply follows each new low methodically, to the point where their bonafide release is captured for the powerful thing it is. Along the way we meet many fascinating characters, including a Boston bankruptcy lawyer who took on their case pro bono, a federal judge gobsmacked by the military’s cavalier obstruction, and a principled American Uyghur translator who resigns when she realizes the military has no intention of freeing her clients. And we meet the Uyghurs themselves, proud, sensitive men of principle betrayed by many nations the world over. To be very clear, some of them had protested for Uyghur freedom back in Xinjiang in the nineties. But they were not terrorists, in spite of the Chinese government’s constant protestations to the contrary. And the U.S. affirms, in it’s patently ludicrous fashion, that they are indeed innocent of any crime. As it holds them in detention for years on end. Even the negotiations for their freedom are ridiculous, as U.S. states and then countries abroad refuse to give them a new home. To be so neglected, so maligned, so unwanted, the spirit of these men has been tested sorely, and remarkably, for the most part they remain unbowed. Seeing them on a beach, revelling in the sun on their faces after years in the dark confines of cells, is moving indeed. And yet Guantanamo remains open, and even Obama can’t muster the will to shut it down. Now that’s absurd.

Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd screens on Thursday, March 26th, at 6:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015. For more info on the documentary see here, and for the entire festival, see here.

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