The three last Uighurs who had languished in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade despite facing no charges have been freed and sent to Slovakia, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
“This transfer and resettlement constitutes a significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement, thanking Slovakia for taking the three men in.
Yusef Abbas, 38, Saidullah Khalik, 36 and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper, 39, who were transferred from the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, southeastern Cuba, were the last of a group of 22 ethnic Chinese Muslims captured in a mountain camp in Afghanistan in 2001.
They had been cleared since 2008 for release from the detention facility — opened in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States — but Washington refused to return them to China where they faced persecution, and had struggled to find a third country to take them amid protests from Beijing.
Asked about pressure from China, Ian Moss, spokesman for the State Department’s office of the special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo, acknowledged there had been difficulties.
“The United States has worked diligently to generate resettlement opportunities for these three individuals and has engaged a number of different governments to seek their resettlement,” he told AFP.
“It is a challenging task to resettle anyone from Guantanamo, but the Uighurs presented a particularly complex set of circumstances.”
The three men were also the last of a group of five who had fought a long and unsuccessful battle to be relocated in the United States, which failed when the Supreme Court refused in April 2012 to take up their appeal.
All 22 Uighurs have been now resettled in six countries, including Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Palau, and Switzerland.
“The United States is grateful to the government of Slovakia for this humanitarian gesture and its willingness to support US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” Kirby added in his statement.
State Department special envoy Cliff Sloan added Washington had cooperated closely with Slovakia over the transfers.
“We have worked together on humanitarian migration issues for many years, and this important humanitarian action reflects Slovakia’s sustained assistance, which, on the issue of Guantanamo, began in 2009,” Sloan said in a statement.
US President Barack Obama has pledged since taking office in 2009 to close the jail, which became a symbol of some of the worst excesses of the “war on terror” under the previous administration of president George W. Bush.
But Obama’s initial efforts stalled, stymied by Republicans’ refusal to allow detainees to be transferred to US soil either for trial or release.
In recent months efforts have accelerated as lawmakers work on easing restrictions to sending people back home or to third nations prepared to accept them.
A total of 155 prisoners now remain in Guantanamo, with 76 having been cleared for release, of which 55 hail from Yemen.
Six others were released this month, sent back to Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The Uighurs — members of a largely Muslim people who have long accused China of discrimination — were cleared years ago of wrongdoing and had been staying in a special part of the prison with a library and recreational space.
They hail from China’s western Xinjiang region, which in 2009 witnessed some of the country’s deadliest ethnic violence in years.
The Guantanamo releases were announced a day after a new outbreak of violence in the remote region, when Chinese authorities said they had shot dead eight “attackers” armed with knives and explosives during a “terrorist attack” on a police station.
An exiled Uighur group on Tuesday called for an independent investigation into the incident.
Copyright (2013) AFP. All rights reserved.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.