Albania took Uighurs from U.S. when no one else would

TIRANA, Albania—President Bush visits Albania this weekend in part to express his gratitude to a nation that's firmly supported his administration's policies, and even gone so far as to accept eight former terrorism suspects who were unwelcome everyplace else.

Albania has cooperated with the United States in foiling terrorist attacks on U.S. targets and has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, but in accepting the five Uighurs—Muslims from northwestern China—and an Uzbek, Egyptian and Algerian it's performed a service that no other ally would do.

While the Bush visit—the first by an American president—is a gesture of thanks from the great, rich nation to this small, poor one, it's been a far from ideal new home for Akhdar Qasem Basit.

He was picked up in Pakistan, and the story he tells is one of government repression in his Chinese home province of Xinjiang, police harassment in central Asia, and physical abuse and mental anguish while imprisoned by the Americans in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the past year of freedom in Albania was his worst.

He and four fellow Uighurs are housed in the Albanian national refugee camp, outside the country's modest capital, Tirana.

As he talked, Basit's dark eyes didn't leave the floor. His walk was a strained shuffle, his voice a combination of coughs and whispers. His family is far away, and he feels abandoned.

"Even in Guantanamo, I was strong," he said, sitting in a cafe not far from the dormitory where he lives. "Look up the records: I did not need doctors. But now, everything has changed. I am sick every day, I am in pain every day. It is no secret why. I have lost hope."

Basit, who's 32, tall and gangly, spent four years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo, and was sent to Albania only days before a refugee status hearing in a U.S. court that his lawyer is convinced would have ended with his release to live in the United States.

Basit has no connection of any kind to Albania, no knowledge of the language and no desire to be here. No other country will admit him, other than China, where he fears being thrown into prison if he returns.

He said that during his incarceration at Guantanamo, from June 2002 until his arrival here in May 2006, he was treated harshly, though not tortured. He said he was beaten, slapped around and kicked. But he said he was kept going by the fact that he knew he was innocent, and that his captors were American.

"It's sad, isn't it?" he said. "We grow up believing America is the land of hope. And yet, that is who killed hope for me. It's very sad."

Basit's presence here will hardly be noted during Bush's day of talks with Albanian leaders and those from other Balkan countries Sunday.

Experts think that the main item on the agenda will be the status of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian territory next door, which U.S.-led NATO forces liberated from Serbia in 1999. At an eight-nation summit Thursday in Germany, Western leaders bowed to Russian demands to delay a U.N. plan to grant independence to Kosovo later this year.

Robin Shepherd, a senior fellow on European issues with the London research center Chatham House, said Bush couldn't visit Kosovo so soon after the summit. "Politically, it would be very dangerous. But he can go into Albania, and from there calm fears, both in Albania and across the border, in Kosovo."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): BUSH UIGHURS