Guantanamo's Last Uighurs Freed to Slovakia
(CN) - Closing what a civil rights group called "one of the most tragic chapters in Guantanamo's 12-year history," the Pentagon on Tuesday transferred the Cuban prison's last three remaining Uighur detainees to Slovakia.
Those three men - Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik, and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper - were the last three residents of Camp Iguana, which primarily held Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group that has been persecuted by the Chinese government. They said that they ended up in U.S. custody after fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan in 2001 with other refugees, only to be passed off to the U.S. military for a $5,000 bounty each.
"It is especially heartbreaking that when the Uighurs were turned over to U.S. forces following the invasion of Afghanistan, they thought they had been saved," their lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement today. "They viewed America as the only superpower capable of standing up to China, and thought that they would be treated fairly and humanely. Sadly, they came to symbolize the tragedy of Guantanamo."
The Bush administration allegedly quickly realized that the men did not pose a threat to the United States, but agreed to hold them so that China would keep its promise not to interfere with a U.N. Security Council resolution bringing about the U.S. war in Iraq, the group said.
Chinese authorities claim the Uighurs are members of a terrorist organization, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). George Washington University professor Sean Roberts testified before Congress, however, that most of the arrests involved political dissent, not acts of violence.
The U.S. designated the ETIM a terrorist group in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2002.
The Uighurs formerly held at Guantanamo deny any affiliation with the group.
In 2005, a group of Uighur detainees petitioned the U.S. government for habeas relief on behalf of 22 captives.
Three years later, U.S. District Judge Richard Urbina announced : "I think the moment has arrived for the court to shine the light of constitutionality on the reasons for detention."
He had ordered them to be resettled in the United States, but the D.C. Circuit overruled him based on its finding that the political branches of government alone have the authority to bring foreigners into the country.
The Supreme Court declined to revisit that decision in 2010.
The pace of prisoner transfers has picked up since October when U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the appointments of Pentagon special envoy Paul Lewis and Department of State special envoy Cliff Sloan to close Guantanamo Bay's prisons.
"The United States is grateful to the government of Slovakia for this humanitarian gesture and its willingness to support U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.
There are 155 men remaining in Guantanamo prisons.