Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Last Uygur detainees at Guantanamo released; three to resettle in Slovakia

Leaked dossiers say that at least as early as 2003 the American military had determined the three were not affiliated with al-Qaeda


In what the Pentagon called a "significant milestone" in the effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the US military announced yesterday that the US had transferred three Chinese detainees to Slovakia.

The three were the last of 22 ethnic Uygurs from China who were captured in Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001 and brought to Guantanamo. Although the military decided that they were not at war with the United States and should be released - and a judge ordered them freed in 2008 - they remained stranded because of difficulties in finding a safe and agreeable place to send them.

"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," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. "The United States co-ordinated with the government of Slovakia to ensure the transfer took place in accordance with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."

With these transfers, a total of nine detainees have departed Guantanamo in December, and 11 since last summer, when US President Barack Obama revived his stagnant efforts to close the prison by appointing Cliff Sloan as a new State Department envoy for the effort to winnow down its population of low-level detainees.

There are 155 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo. Of those, about half have long been approved for transfer if security conditions can be met in the receiving country, the bulk of whom are Yemenis.

Sloan said: "We deeply appreciate Slovakia's humanitarian assistance in accepting these three individuals from Guantanamo who were in need of resettlement … All 22 Uygurs from Guantanamo now have been resettled to six different countries, and these three resettlements are an important step in implementing President Obama's directive to close the Guantanamo detention facility," he said.

As well as Slovakia, the other Uygurs have settled in Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Palau, and Switzerland.

The Uygurs have long served as a particularly high profile symbol for opponents of the Guantanamo policy. Leaked dossiers for the three detainees sent to Slovakia say that at least as early as 2003, the military had determined they were "not affiliated with al-Qaeda or a Taliban leader" and should be released.

But the US could not repatriate the Uygurs because officials believed they would be subjected to torture or death in China, which is dealing with ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, where Uygurs are the largest ethnic group.

The US military believed some of the Uygurs had received weapons training at a camp in Afghanistan run by a separatist Uygur group. Other countries were reluctant to take them, in part because of Chinese diplomatic pressure.

In 2008, a federal district court judge ordered the remaining 17 be brought into the United States. But in February 2009, the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia overturned that ruling.

Greg Craig, who was Obama's White House counsel in the first year of the administration and was closely involved in efforts to resolve the Uygurs' fate, celebrated the departure of the last Uygurs from Guantanamo.

"From the beginning, we knew that one test of our determination to close Guantanamo would be measured by what happened to the Uygurs," Craig said. "That the last of the Uygurs has now left Guantanamo is an important milestone. They didn't belong there in the first place."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: U.S. frees last of 22 Uygur detainees