WASHINGTON -- Officials said Tuesday that the United States had transferred three Uighur Muslim detainees to Slovakia from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the last members of the ethnic minority from China to be held at the military prison.
The trio had languished at Guantanamo for more than a decade since their capture in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- despite prior military assessments that they had no ties to al-Qaida or the Taliban. In 2008, a federal judge ruled that the Uighurs were being held unlawfully and ordered their release. Their transfer was delayed by repeated legal wrangling and attempts to find a country willing to accept them.
The Pentagon described the transfer as a "significant milestone." Eight other prisoners have been moved from the controversial detention facility since August, including two Saudis and two Algerians who returned to their countries earlier this month. An additional 155 detainees remain.
President Barack Obama last week reaffirmed his commitment to shutter the prison at Guantanamo, despite ongoing resistance from Republican lawmakers. "The continued operation of the facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners and emboldening violent extremists," Mr. Obama said.
The detainees whose releases were announced Tuesday were identified as Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper. They agreed to resettle in Slovakia, officials said.
Returning the detainees to China was not an option for the United States because of fears that they might be treated harshly. A senior U.S. military official said the Chinese have put tremendous pressure on other countries in an effort stop them from taking any of the Uighurs.
The official said a deal was in place several weeks ago for the final three to go to Costa Rica, but the Chinese learned about the secret discussions and scuttled any possible arrangement. The United States had been talking to Slovakia, a NATO member, for a year about taking some of the Uighurs, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss diplomatic negotiations.
China's embassy in Washington had no immediate response to an email seeking comment.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Slovakia's decision to take the men was a "humanitarian gesture." In a statement, he thanked Slovakia for its "willingness to support U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility."
Clifford Sloan, the State Department's special envoy working toward closure of Guantanamo, said 22 Uighurs from Guantanamo have been resettled to six countries.
Military detainee files disclosed by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks indicate that in 2004, the men posed a medium risk to U.S. interests if they were released and were "vulnerable to future recruitment by terrorist groups." The files say they were "probable" members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group in China.
This is not the first time that Slovakia has agreed to accept detainees from Guantanamo. In January 2010, the country took three detainees from Egypt, Tunisia and Azerbaijan, according to the military official. One of them, Adel Fattough Ali al Gazzar, later left Slovakia and traveled to his native Egypt, where he was arrested in June 2011.
U.S. officials suspected that Mr. Gazzar had ties to an Egyptian terrorist group called Al Wa'ad that was behind a plot to kill then-President Hosni Mubarak and raised money for militants in Chechyna. Reprieve, a human rights organization based in Britain, said Mr. Gazzar was being held on bogus charges.
The former detainee from Azerbaijan, Az Polad Sabir Oglu Sirajov, remained in Slovakia, while Rafik al-Hami of Tunisia returned to his native country.