The Pentagon announced this week that the last of the 22 Uighurs, a group of Muslims from China who are routinely persecuted, who had been captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay where they were likely tortured despite having no connection at all to terrorism, have finally been set free.
Slovakia agreed to repatriate Yusef Abbas, Hajiakbar Abdulghupur, and Saidullah Khalik, who could not be transferred to the U.S. mainland because of Congressional restrictions. The decision is consistent with the Guantanamo approach codified in the newly signed 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which maintains the ban on transferring detainees to the United States while increasing the president’s power to transfer detainees to other nations.
The deal with Slovakia is a comparatively happy ending to a terribly sad saga. The 22 Uighurs rounded up by the United States in 2001 were fleeing brutal persecution in China, which represses the mere expression of Uighur religion and culture as a matter of policy. “At its most extreme,” Human Rights Watch documented in 2005, “peaceful [Uighur] activists practicing their religion in ways that the Party and government deem unacceptable are arrested, tortured, and at times executed.”
The now-released Guantanamo inmates ran to Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan, where there were preexisting Uighur communities, and hence were rounded up during the first year of the war in Afghanistan as suspected transnational terrorists. “When the Uighurs were turned over to the United States, they thought that they had been saved,” J. Wells Dixon, a lawyer representing some of the inmates, told PBS.
It took two years for the U.S. military to acknowledge its mistake. In 2003, the New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports, military officials decided the Uighur inmates were “not affiliated with Al Qaeda or a Taliban leader” and hence should be released from custody.
It gets worse. A military tribunal ruled that they were all innocent and should be released in 2005 and three years later, a civilian court ordered that they be released into the United States. The Obama administration appealed that ruling — and won. It was one of the first and most obvious instances of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Finally, justice is almost kinda sorta done. They should have been released into the United States and given asylum in 2003, when the Pentagon concluded that they were innocent.