AFTER ROUGHLY 10 years of unjustified imprisonment, two Uighur detainees have found new homes in El Salvador, far beyond the confines of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Seventeen Uighurs were freed earlier, while three remain at Gitmo, with little prospect for release any time soon.
The latest transfer, on April 19, was the result of more than a year of negotiations between El Salvador and the United States and extensive due diligence, including meetings between Salvadoran representatives and the detainees. The release could not have been accomplished but for years of volunteer work by lawyers at the law firm of Bingham McCutchen and the diligence of Daniel Fried, the State Department’s point person for detainee affairs. The total detainee population of Guantanamo now stands at 169.
The saga of the Uighur detainees has been marked by unlucky turns and remarkable congressional cowardice. After fleeing China because of that government’s abuse of the Uighur Muslim minority, the Uighurs arrived in Afghanistan, but they ran to Pakistan in late 2001 after a U.S. bombing raid destroyed the camp where they were staying. They were soon picked up by Pakistani officers, handed over to the United States and flown to Guantanamo as suspected terrorists and enemy combatants.
It would take years before the Bush administration acknowledged that the Uighurs were neither aligned with al-Qaeda nor posed any danger to the United States or its allies. A federal court ultimately ordered the men released, but they could not be sent back to China for fear that they would be persecuted.
The first Uighur detainees were relocated to Albania some six years ago. Since then, others have been welcomed in such far-flung places as Palau, Bermuda, Switzerland and, now, El Salvador. Some have married and seen the birth of children; by all accounts, each has been a productive and law-abiding member of his new home country.
The three Uighurs who remain in Guantanamo do not pose any more of a danger to the United States than do their resettled countrymen. They, too, have had offers of relocation but, sadly, have turned them down in hopes of securing an offer from a country with a larger Muslim population. There have been no — and likely will be no — takers, despite good-faith efforts.
That is yet another reason why Congress should scrap the reprehensible measure that forbids Guantanamo detainees, including the Uighurs, from being brought into this country. The best reason, of course, is that it is the right and moral thing to do. The refusal of the United States to take in even one Uighur darkens an already sorry chapter in this country’s history.