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 men were among about two dozen Uighurs captured after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks 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.
The three who were still at Guantanamo until this week did not want to be in Palau or Bermuda because they wanted to be closer to Uighur communities in other parts of Europe, said Abbas, who lives in Herndon, Virginia.
The Uighurs who have been released from Guantanamo keep in touch with each other through Skype and other means and are busy rebuilding their lives, said Abbas, who has visited with them and is contact with the men.
She said the men lost more than a decade of their lives but are not bitter. "They are not angry, but they are disappointed," she said.
U.S. officials thanked Slovakia for accepting the men. "These three resettlements are an important step in implementing President Obama's directive to close the Guantanamo detention facility," said Clifford Sloan, Department of State Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure.
The release of the men brings the prisoner population at the U.S. base in Cuba to 155. Obama, who had pledged to close the detention center upon taking office, this year renewed the effort to resettle prisoners. Eleven were freed in 2013, including nine in December, and officials have said more are expected.
Of the remaining prisoners, six are on trial for terrorism offenses, including five charged with aiding and planning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. About 80 have been approved for transfer or resettlement, including nearly 60 from Yemen, which the U.S. has said is too unstable to properly secure them at this time.
"For a long time we were very worried that the Uighurs would still be at Guantanamo when the lights went out years from now," Dixon said. "Thankfully that's not the case. It's increasingly clear that it's the Yemenis who will still be there when Guantanamo is shuttered."