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Ex-Guantanamo detainee: "I am sure it will be closed this year"

A Uighur resettled in Albania said other countries' reluctance to take detainees explains the delay in Gitmo's closure.

Abu Bakker Qassim, a former Guantanamo detainee and Chinese Uighur, was resettled in Albania. He was interviewed at the Hotel Mondial in Tirana in January 2010. (Besar Likmeta/GlobalPost)

TIRANA, Albania — While human rights activists marked the eighth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility two weeks ago with protests, calling on President Barack Obama to follow through on his pledge to close it, one of Gitmo’s former inmates was rolling dough in a Tirana pizza restaurant.

Abu Bakker Qassim is one of five Chinese Uighurs released to Albania in 2006 after United States authorities feared that sending them back to China would expose them to persecution and human rights abuses.

Although seven of his compatriots still remain in Guantanamo despite having been found innocent and cleared for release, Qassim’s faith in Obama’s intent has not wavered, saying that the U.S. president has received little help from America’s European allies, who were once some of the prison’s most vociferous critics.

A year ago Friday, Obama signed a historic act to overturn some of the most unpopular policies of the Bush administration, including closure of the Guantanamo detention facility, within a year.

“The president signed [an executive order] saying that the prison will be closed and I am sure it will be closed this year,” said Quassim, who since his release has tried to rebuild his life by training as chef and now works at a pizza joint called Vllaznia.

“President Obama understood that there were a lot of mistakes made in Guantanamo; the American people understood it too and they don’t want the mistakes to continue,” he added.

Although the promise Obama made a year ago has proven unrealistic, experts say that it gave the U.S. a windfall of approval among allies and foes alike, in what had become a lightning rod for allegations that the Bush administration was torturing detainees in the war on terror.

“Guantanamo has fueled extant popular sentiment in the Middle East regarding U.S. involvement in the region, alongside alleged abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Domenic Moran, an Israel-based Middle East expert with ISA Consulting. “The prison has become a symbol of what is widely perceived as U.S. hypocrisy in relation to its own human rights advocacy in the region.”