WASHINGTON—Six Uyghur men held for seven years in U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay have been released and have now reached the tiny Pacific island of Palau.
The men were identified as Adel Nury, 40; Ahmed Tursun, 38; Abdulghappar Abdulrahman, 36; Anwar Hasan, 35; Edhem Mohammed, 31; and Dawud Abdulrehim, 35.
They landed in Palau in the early hours of Sunday after a 17-hour direct military flight, along with three U.S. lawyers, Rushan Abbas, a longtime translator for the Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo Bay, said in a telephone interview, citing contacts with the men and their lawyers. A new Uyghur translator has been flown to Palau from Australia, she said.
In a statement late Saturday, the Justice Department confirmed that the six men had arrived in Palau and said consultations over the remaining detainees at Guantanamo were continuing.
“As we near the completion of our review of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, we will continue to work closely with the Department of State to implement transfer decisions,” Matthew Olsen, executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force, said. There are now 215 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, which U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to close by Jan. 22.
The president of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, told the BBC that the Uyghurs would be given a temporary home on the archipelago for up to two years.
The Uyghur men were among a larger group of 22 Uyghurs captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan and sold for bounty to U.S. forces after fleeing the mountains in the wake of U.S.-led raids, following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
They say they were living as refugees in Afghanistan, having faced religious persecution in China. The United States maintained that the men had attended
terror-training camps, and they were flown to Guantanamo Bay in June
All were eventually cleared of terrorist links but remained in custody while Washington tried to find a country willing to take them in.
Four were transferred to Bermuda in June 2009 while five others were resettled in Albania in 2006. One man in that group has since resettled in Sweden.
Seven men left
The transfer of these six men leaves seven Uyghurs in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay. They say they cannot return to China for fear of persecution.
The Republic of Palau is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles (800 kms) east of the Philippines and 2,000 miles (3,200 kms) south of Tokyo.
After a series of military tribunals and courtroom battles, the men were cleared of links to global terrorism—but most governments refused to take them in for fear of angering Beijing, which regards them as terrorists.
The U.S. Supreme Court this month agreed to review the cases of all remaining Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
The group was originally ordered released into the United States in October last year by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina here.
But his decision was overturned after an appeals court ruled that District Court judges don’t have the authority to order the transfer of foreigners into the United States, and that only Congress and the executive branch can do so.
Uyghurs in China
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwestern China.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in rioting in July that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
The six men transferred to Palau may have difficulty reaching their relatives in the XUAR because Chinese authorities have imposed a telephone and Internet blackout over the whole region in an apparent bid to avoid further ethnic violence.
Twelve people have since been sentenced to death in connection with the violence, which was the worst the country has experienced in decades.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Original reporting by Radio Free Asia.