WASHINGTON — Three Chinese Muslims, the last of nearly two dozen ethnic Uighurs held for years at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, have been flown to freedom as the Obama administration pushes to empty the prison in Cuba under new rules that relaxed restrictions on detainee transfers.
The Pentagon announced the releases Tuesday, just days after President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which eased restrictions on moving some detainees from the prison for terrorism suspects to other countries. The three Uighurs were secretly flown Monday to Slovakia.
Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper were swept up with other Uighurs as U.S. forces rolled through Central Asia after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The men had been cleared for release in 2008, when a U.S. federal judge ruled they were being unlawfully detained.
Yet they remained locked up in a section of the Guantanamo prison called Camp Iguana, known by guards as “Uighurville,” as U.S. officials tried to find other countries willing to accept them because they worried the men would face torture and religious persecution if returned to China.
“This transfer and resettlement constitutes a significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay,” said Navy Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. At present, 155 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay, he said.
Civil rights attorneys and advocates hailed Monday’s release as a sign Obama is moving to close the prison, a pledge he made during his presidential run in 2008.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, whose attorneys have worked on behalf of detainees, said the Uighurs’ release marked “a profound humanitarian gesture toward three men the U.S. government long recognized were innocent of any wrongdoing and never should have been brought to Guantanamo.”
In a statement, the center added that their capture and imprisonment were “especially heartbreaking” because the Uighurs — 22 in all who had fled persecution in their homeland — initially thought they had been rescued by the U.S., a superpower capable of standing up to China. Instead, “sadly they came to symbolize the tragedy of Guantanamo.”
C. Dixon Osburn, director of the law and security program at Human Rights First, called on Obama to move more detainees out of Guantanamo. Osburn said 11 detainees were released in 2013, while more than 70 others have been cleared for transfers by U.S. intelligence and security agencies.
The Pentagon is in the process of launching review boards to assess whether remaining detainees pose security threats to the U.S. and other countries, and whether they should be approved for transfers out of the heavily secured island fortress.
The president, in signing the defense bill Thursday, said he hoped to work with Congress to “take the additional steps needed to close the facility.” Left as it is, he said, “Guantanamo continues to impose significant costs on the American people.”
But many conservatives on Capitol Hill want the prison to remain in force, and insist that no detainees be held or prosecuted in the U.S. or relocated to this country, as ordered by a federal judge in 2008.
Abbas, 38, was captured in Pakistan in 2001. Three years later, he was recommended for release from Guantanamo and relocation to another country, according to declassified Guantanamo records.
Those same 2004 records stated that Khalik, 36, was not affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and that his “intelligence value has been fully exploited” by U.S. interrogators. He also was recommended for transfer.
The 2004 records called Ghuper, 40, a low- to medium-risk detainee who was often uncooperative but showed no signs of violence.
“Detainee performs physical training in his cell and has on more than one occasion yelled across to detainees in other blocks,” the internal report says. “Detainee’s overall behavior has been noncompliant and nonaggressive.”