The Obama administration sent three ethnic Uighur Muslim captives from Guantanamo to Slovakia, the Defense Department said Tuesday, ending one of the saddest and longest-running chapters of unlawful detention at the U.S. prison camps in Cuba.
Yusef Abbas, 38, Hajiakbar Abdulghuper, 39, and Saidullah Khalik, 36, left the remote U.S. Navy base in a secret operation on Monday, according to U.S. government sources. They had spent about a dozen years in U.S. military custody.
Their transfer reduced the prison camp population to 155 captives, 11 fewer than when the year started. It was the government's latest incremental step toward reaching President Barack Obama's mandate to close the detention center.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John Kirby, a spokesman, called the transfer and resettlement "a significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay." He credited the work of Obama's two special envoys for prison camps closure _ Paul Lewis at the Defense Department and Clifford Sloan at the Department of State.
Abbas, Abdulghuper and Khalik were the last of 17 Chinese citizens who a federal judge ruled in 2008 were unlawfully detained at Guantanamo after the Bush administration abandoned an argument that they were "enemy combatants," the U.S. term for prisoners of the war on terror.
Uighurs are an oppressed Muslim minority in China _ so much so that early in their Guantanamo detention then Secretary of State Colin Powell determined they could not be repatriated. Chinese authorities branded the men part of a terrorist separatist movement, meaning they likely faced persecution or torture if returned.
So in a unique decision, since-retired U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered their release into the United States _ a judicial ruling that would be overturned on appeal, thwarted by Congress and snubbed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I was disappointed," Urbina told the Miami Herald in an interview to be used when the last Uighur was transferred from the Pentagon's prison camps in southeast Cuba.
"The Supreme Court had already decided that individuals who were detained at Guantanamo did have a right to petition the courts for a writ of habeas corpus," he said. "It seems to me incongruent that the Supreme Court would recognize a right but there was no remedy to give the right the force of law. I would have been very interested to see how the Supreme Court would have reasoned."
The Uighurs never did reach U.S. soil. While the Bush administration appealed Urbina's decision, the military segregated Guantanamo's Uighurs at "Camp Iguana," a barbed-wire-ringed compound known to some as Uighurville. Instead they left in small groups in a variety of resettlement deals to such far-flung places as Bermuda and Palau, Switzerland and El Salvador. Several have since reportedly resettled in Turkey.
Afghan tribal allies of the United States and Pakistani security forces scooped up the Uighurs in late 2001 in the frantic aftermath of 9/11. The U.S. was hunting for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida sleeper cells. And Muslim men from other countries, even those who admired American democracy and hated Chinese communism, were considered suspect foreign fighters.
Their lawyers said they fled religious oppression in their homeland, cast them as early errors of the fog of war. Some had trained in paramilitary camps around Afghanistan that were remnants of the once U.S.-backed insurgency, the mujahedin, that routed the Soviets. Some 2004 U.S. intelligence assessments wondered if they were the enemy on the thinnest of evidence _ they exercised in their individual cells, yelled or talked across a cellblock with another detainee, ignored their guards' instructions.
In the intervening years since Urbina found them unlawfully detained, more than 100 detainees were resettled elsewhere or repatriated to their homelands, six admirals came and went as prison commanders _ and the judge who ordered them freed retired after 31 years on the bench. He now works for a firm called JAMS, made of judges and other mediators who resolve disputes outside the courts.
Urbina said he understood why Americans might fear "importing persons from Guantanamo."
But, as the case demonstrated, "they certainly were not 'enemy combatants,'" he said. "And there was not a shred of evidence that they were disliked by anyone _ anyone but the Chinese government."
China, in fact, had opposed U.S. efforts to find the Uighurs of Guantanamo safe haven across the globe, formally protesting resettlements and insisting that these Muslim citizens be returned for interrogation.
The last three Uighurs at Guantanamo packed their bags to leave Camp Iguana for the second time this year. In September, the men had been offered and accepted resettlement in Costa Rica, according to two U.S. government officials who spoke about the deal anonymously because they were not authorized by the Obama administration to discuss it.
They were ready to go when the Costa Rican government suddenly withdrew the offer, said one official who called the Uighur captives of Guantanamo "extraordinarily difficult to resettle, in particular because of Chinese pressure" on countries that might have otherwise taken them in.
The Uighur case got to the civilian courts after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark June 2008 ruling that gave Guantanamo captives the right to challenge their detention through petitions of habeas corpus. The Bush administration was defending its designations of individual captives as "enemy combatants." But in September 2008 it abruptly conceded that it wouldn't prove that was true of the Uighurs.
They couldn't go home. The Bush administration had sent a few to Albania in 2006. But by October 2008 it had no country ready to resettle the rest. So Urbina ordered them brought to the United States for resettlement, an order the Bush White House resisted _ calling them too dangerous for U.S. soil as former Afghan camp trainees.
"The courtroom was loaded with people _ some of them Uighurs, some of them Christian organizations, some of them Muslim organizations _ that were willing to step forward with jobs and houses and resources," said Urbina, "to make sure those people were not up to mischief."
He noted that at the time of his order to bring them to the United States that he invited the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice as well as immigration officials to raise concerns. "I would've listened to all of that," he said. "I would've tried to harmonize all those thoughts." None did.
At the Pentagon, military officials took Urbina's order so seriously that they discussed whether to attire them in orange jumpsuits for the flight from Guantanamo to Andrews Air Force Base and whether to let news photographers document their arrival on U.S. soil. The discussion was abandoned once the administration won a stay of Urbina's order.
The Obama administration did no better. Advocates for them had found religious groups in the Washington, D.C., region as well as, improbably, in Tallahassee, Fla., to resettle them. But the offers were spurned as Congress imposed escalating restrictions on moving Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil that ultimately shut them out completely.
It was unclear what Slovakia got in exchange for offering the Muslim men resettlement.
About three years ago the government in Bratislava accepted three other Guantanamo detainees for resettlement. Subsequent reports identified them as citizens of Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Egypt who launched a hunger strike to protest their conditions. The Azerbaijani is believed to still be in Slovakia while the other two apparently arranged to return to their homelands in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Urbina, for his part, responded to word of the deal with Slovkia and the aborted Costa Rican resettlement with reflection.
"I'm not sure that this outcome is real compensation for what happened," he said. "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time for sure. There was no way for the allied forces to know. Certainly it could have taken years to make sure they were not part of an evil insurgency that wanted to do our country harm.
"But once the U.S. government satisfied itself that we were not at risk and therefore recognized that these people were, albeit in hindsight, wrongfully detained, it seems to me that steps should have been taken more affirmatively to take these people back to a position that would have compensated them for their loss. That could not be China. The last place on earth those people wanted to go was China.
"Maybe there were better choices than the United States," he said. "But I didn't hear it. I waited to hear it."