The last three ethnic Uyghurs held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba have been released and sent to Slovakia after more than 12 years in custody without charge, a Pentagon official said Tuesday.
The men were among 22 Uyghurs from northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
“The Department of Defense is announcing today the transfer of Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik, and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to the Government of Slovakia,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement, thanking the country for agreeing to take them in.
“These three are the last ethnic [Uyghur] Chinese nationals to be transferred,” he said, adding that the men were voluntarily resettling in Slovakia.
They were designated for transfer by unanimous consent among the six agencies on the Guantanamo Review Task Force after reviewing “a number of factors,” including security issues, according to the statement.
The three are among 22 Uyghurs previously held at Guantanamo that the U.S. had refused to return to China, saying they would face persecution there.
But Washington was also reluctant to resettle them in the United States, despite appeals from exile Uyghur rights groups.
Kirby said that the U.S. had coordinated with the government of Slovakia to ensure the transfer took place “in accordance with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
“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,” he said.
Agence France-Presse cited Slovakia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Ivan Netik as saying that the men had already arrived in the country where they were beginning to adjust to their new homeland.
“They are already in Slovakia. They will now stay at a camp for migrants, learn Slovak, and get ready for a new life,” Netik said.
He said that the three men were “never suspected, let alone convicted of crimes,” adding that authorities were looking for jobs for them.
Abbas, Khalik, and Ghuper had earlier spurned an offer to leave Guantanamo for the Pacific island nation of Palau. They had hoped to be resettled in the U.S., but the Supreme Court refused to take up their appeal in April last year.
Of the other 19 Uyghurs held in Guantanamo, four were sent to Bermuda, five went to Albania, six to Palau, two to Switzerland, and two to El Salvador.
China opposed any countries accepting the Uyghurs, claiming they are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China, the United Nations, and the United States regard as a terrorist organization.
AFP quoted Ian Moss, spokesman for the State Department's office of the special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo, who acknowledged there had been difficulties in resettling the three men.
“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 [Uyghurs] presented a particularly complex set of circumstances.”
Tuesday’s release followed reports that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang shot dead eight ethnic minority Uyghurs yesterday they said had attacked a police station.
Authorities moved swiftly to say the killings—the latest in a string of violent incidents to hit the region—were the result of a premeditated attack by terrorists and religious extremists.
Exiled Uyghur groups on Tuesday called for an independent investigation into the incident.
Xinjiang is home to some 10 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
Rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.