NO CASE better represented the misguided use of the Guantanamo Bay prison after 2001 than that of the 22 ethnic Uighurs imprisoned there. Swept up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where they had fled from their native China, the Uighurs, like most of those dispatched to the U.S. base in Cuba, never should have been designated for long-term detention there. Yet only on Monday did the last three leave Guantanamo.
The Uighurs supported a separatist movement in China, but they had no connections to al-Qaeda or the Taliban and posed no threat to the United States. The Bush administration cleared them for release a decade ago, and a federal judge ordered them freed in 2008. But most lingered in Guantanamo. U.S. officials rightly believed that they would be mistreated in China, Congress blocked their transfer to the United States and the State Department had trouble finding other nations that would offer them refuge.
The transfer to Slovakia of the last three Uighurs consequently was a breakthrough and an encouraging sign of progress in President Obama’s renewed effort to close the prison. After more than two years of virtual passivity in the face of restrictions imposed by Congress, the president last year appointed senior officials at the State and Defense departments to coordinate the transfer of prisoners cleared for release and ordered long-delayed reviews of cases of the remaining detainees to begin. Including the Uighurs, 11 men have left Guantanamo since August.
Congress made it easier last month by lessening the restrictions it had previously placed on transfers, though it continued an irrational ban on the movement of prisoners to the United States, where they could be held and prosecuted far more simply and cheaply. Slovakia, like El Salvador, Switzerland, Albania, Bermuda and Palau before it, deserves recognition for resisting pressure from China not to accept the Uighurs. Beijing reportedly succeeded in blocking the prisoners’ previously planned transfer to Costa Rica.
Guantanamo still holds 155 prisoners, including 76 who have been cleared for repatriation. One of the largest remaining obstacles to closing the prison is arranging for the return of 55 Yemenis whose home country lacks adequate programs or facilities to accept them while minimizing the risk that they will join local al-Qaeda forces. The Obama administration has proceeded slowly with the review boards for the 71 prisoners being held indefinitely without trial; only four have begun. The trials of six detainees by military commissions, including five prime authors of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proceed at a glacial pace.
Congress could and should open the way to ending Guantanamo’s role as a symbol for anti-American propagandists by allowing the transfer of its remaining prisoners to a secure federal facility. But Mr. Obama has shown that it is possible to make progress even in the absence of that measure. He should aim to transfer the remainder of those detainees cleared for release as quickly as possible.