The last of 22 Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group concentrated in Western China, were freed from Guantanamo Bay, according to an announcement from the Pentagon on Tuesday. Their freedom comes ten years after the U.S. military determined that the men posed no threat to American national security.
Slovakia agreed to repatriate Yusef Abbas, Hajiakbar Abdulghupur, and Saidullah Khalik, who could not be transferred to the U.S. mainland because of Congressional restrictions. The decision is consistent with the Guantanamo approach codified in the newly signed 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which maintains the ban on transferring detainees to the United States while increasing the president’s power to transfer detainees to other nations.
The deal with Slovakia is a comparatively happy ending to a terribly sad saga. The 22 Uighurs rounded up by the United States in 2001 were fleeing brutal persecution in China, which represses the mere expression of Uighur religion and culture as a matter of policy. “At its most extreme,” Human Rights Watch documented in 2005, “peaceful [Uighur] activists practicing their religion in ways that the Party and government deem unacceptable are arrested, tortured, and at times executed.”
The now-released Guantanamo inmates ran to Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan, where there were preexisting Uighur communities, and hence were rounded up during the first year of the war in Afghanistan as suspected transnational terrorists. “When the Uighurs were turned over to the United States, they thought that they had been saved,” J. Wells Dixon, a lawyer representing some of the inmates, told PBS.
It took two years for the U.S. military to acknowledge its mistake. In 2003, the New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports, military officials decided the Uighur inmates were “not affiliated with Al Qaeda or a Taliban leader” and hence should be released from custody.
But the mechanism for release was tricky. They couldn’t be sent back to China, and there were tremendous domestic political pressures against releasing them into the United States. So, for some time, they continued to be held as prisoners in Guantanamo, despite demonstrably posing no threat to the United States.
In 2005, a military tribunal ruled the Uighurs were “not enemy combatants” and hence should be released. One of their lawyers asked that they be allowed to live in a hotel in Guantanamo until a permanent place for them could be found, a request the Department of Defense denied. Three years later, a civilian court ruled that all remaining Uighurs be transferred to the United States to live freely, a ruling overturned on the Obama Administration’s appeal.
Slowly, the Uighur inmates were transferred away from Guantanamo to countries around the world. Five inmates were released to Albania in 2006, but the repatriation process really began in earnest in 2009. The Slovakia agreement is the culmination of this process.
The Uighurs’ long-awaited freedom is part of what Savage describes as a renewed push to close Guantanamo Bay, one of President Obama’s most high-profile campaign promises in 2008. 155 prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay, a facility that costs the United States billions of dollars to operate. The general who presided over Guantanamo Bay’s creation now describes it as “a prison that should never have been opened.”