Slovakia has accepted three prisoners from Guantanamo Bay who had posed a difficult resettlement challenge, helping the U.S. government move closer to its goal of closing the prison on its base in Cuba, officials said Tuesday.
The three men who left for the Central European country in recent days were Uighurs, members of an ethnic Muslim minority from western China who had been detained in Afghanistan as suspected allies of the Taliban and sent to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation.
Authorities eventually determined that the 22 Uighurs in its custody had no involvement in terrorism, but the U.S. struggled to resettle them. China requested their return, but they couldn't be sent there because of fears they would face persecution and torture. Many countries refused to accept them out of reluctance to anger the Chinese government. Congress blocked a U.S. judge's order to release them inside the United States.
Uighurs are from the northwestern Chinese region of Xianjiang, where militants have fought a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule.
Eventually, the U.S. relocated Uighurs to Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland and elsewhere but could not find countries that would take the final three and would also be acceptable to the men even after a decade of captivity at Guantanamo.
Slovakia had previously accepted three Guantanamo prisoners, from Egypt, Tunisia and Azerbaijan, in 2009. The Interior Ministry portrayed this latest transfer as simply an extension of the previous agreement. "Like in the case of the first transport, they are persons who have been neither suspected nor accused of the crime of terrorism," the ministry said in a statement broadcast on Slovak RTVS television.
The Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday that the release brings the Guantanamo prison population to 155. Congress and President Barack Obama recent agreed to ease restrictions on releasing prisoners from the U.S. base in Cuba but a ban remains in place on transferring any of the men to the U.S. for any reason.