MIAMI – Three members of a persecuted ethnic minority from China have been released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to the Central European country of Slovakia, officials said Tuesday, resolving a diplomatic dilemma that had kept the men imprisoned long after a judge had ordered their release.
The three men were the last three ethnic Uighurs held at the U.S. base in Cuba and their release after months of intense diplomatic efforts comes amid a renewed effort by President Barack Obama to close down the prison.
Slovakia had accepted three other Guantanamo prisoners in 2009 and allowed the resettlement of the Uighurs after other countries refused because of pressure from the Chinese government, which has sought to take custody of the men.
“Slovakia deserves a lot of credit because they were willing to do what large countries like the United States, Canada and Germany were unwilling to do, which was to resist diplomatic pressure from China and the stigma of Guantanamo,” said Wells Dixon, a lawyer with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights who worked for years trying to secure the men’s release.
The Pentagon identified the men as Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper. All three are in their 30s and were captured in late 2001.
The men were among about two dozen Uighurs captured after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and initially detained as suspected allies of the Taliban.
In fact, the men had no affiliation with the Taliban and had come to Afghanistan after fleeing China, where Uighurs have long sought an independent homeland in the northwestern Xinjiang region and nearby countries. Some were intensely pro-American and relieved when they were turned over to U.S. forces, in some cases in exchange for bounties, and thought they had been saved, according to Dixon and other advocates.
U.S. authorities eventually agreed with that assessment and began trying to repatriate them. Several with citizenship in other countries were released but 22 with Chinese citizenship posed a dilemma: They could not be sent to China because under U.S. law they had a reasonable fear of persecution and torture.
Albania accepted five Uighurs in 2006 but refused to take more. As the diplomatic effort stalled, a U.S. federal judge ordered them released to the United States, which has a Uighur-American community in the Washington, D.C., area, but the transfer was halted amid opposition from Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush.
Uighurs were eventually scattered around the globe in such places as Bermuda, the Pacific island of Palau, Switzerland and El Salvador. Some have since moved on but most are getting on with their lives, said Rushan Abbas, a Uighur-American who translated for both the U.S. government and defense teams working to release the men.