A year after Pentagon review panels cleared five Muslim men from China of being enemy combatants at Guantánamo, the U.S. government finally found a nation to offer them sanctuary: Albania.
The Pentagon announced Friday night that it sent five Uighurs from its detention center at the Guantánamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba to Albania, where they were expected to get refugee status.
"The United States has done the utmost to ensure that the Uighurs will be treated humanely upon release, " a Defense Department announcement said. "Our key objective has been to resettle the Uighurs in an environment that will permit them to rebuild their lives. Albania will provide this opportunity."
On Thursday, lawyers for one of the men - identified as Ahmed Doe - made public a letter from the man at Guantánamo appealing directly to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for asylum in the United States.
APPEALED TO RICE
"It is very hard to understand that I am still languishing in a prison with very little rights even after being found innocent, " he wrote in the letter, dated Jan. 19.
The five were among about two dozen Muslims with Chinese citizenship who were rounded up in either Pakistan or Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in a saga that included interrogation by both U.S. troops and Chinese investigators at the remote base in southeast Cuba.
As secretary of state, Colin Powell subsequently declared they would not be repatriated to China for fear they would be persecuted if not tortured in the communist country.
Published reports have said that the Bush administration put out feelers to friendly governments the world over to offer asylum to the Muslim men in their 20s and 30s who had feared reprisal from communist Chinese officials if they were returned home.
Uighurs are an Asian Muslim minority who predominantly live today in the Xinjiang region of communist China. In that Western Turkic region, the State Department says, Muslim religious expression and education is tightly restricted. China considers Uighur separatists to be terrorists and blames them for a series of bombings beginning in 1997.
A Uighur rights activist in the Washington, D.C., area who had doubled as an interpreter for the men at Guantánamo declared himself delighted by the development.
Albania "is a relatively ideal country I would say for religious purposes - not for economic reasons but for cultural reasons, " said Nury Turkel in a telephone interview.
Although poor, and war-torn, Albania is a predominantly Muslim country of the former Ottoman empire and should be culturally compatible for the men, said Turkel. "I saw them a few weeks ago and they were exhausted, mentally and physically, " said Turkel, who said it was good news that the men "are out of prison" and expected to get refugee status from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
ONE ON HIS WAY
Turkel was leaving for the Albanian capital, Tirana, Albania, this weekend with one of the attorneys who had argued their cause in U.S. District Court in Washington - to check on the men.
All five men had habeas corpus petitions pending in federal court. They had been segregated from the wider enemy combatant population at Guantánamo in a fence-ringed, razor-wire-topped compound called Camp Iguana, surrounded by a tarp that gave them an obstructed view of the Caribbean.
Lawyers for three of the five had a hearing scheduled in a federal appeals court for Monday.
There are still 17 or so more Uighurs at Guantánamo, most cleared for release to a third country.
But they had been initially classified as "enemy combatants, " complicating any deal the State Department might make on their behalf.
What's a Uighur?
* Uighurs are an Asian Muslim minority that predominantly lives today in the Xinjiang region of communist China, a Western Turkic region where, the State Department says, Muslim religious expression and education is tightly restricted. Pronounced Wee-gur; sometimes spelled Uyghur.
* A report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service in May 2005 said the United States had unsuccessfully approached at least nine countries about resettling the 22 Uighurs at Guantánamo Bay Navy Base, Cuba. The nine were Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.
* The Encyclopaedia Britannica estimated there were more than 7.7 million Uighurs in China in the late 20th century, and about 300,000 in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
* China blames Uighur separatists for a series of violent incidents, including bombings beginning in 1997 - and says the violence is why the government strictly controls Muslim religious activity and places of worship.
* An estimated 1,000 Uighurs live in the United States, mostly concentrated around Washington, D.C.