El Salvador is resettling two long-held Guantánamo captives, both citizens of China from the Uighur Muslim minority who sought asylum in a friendly country, the Pentagon announced Thursday.
Wednesday’s was the first transfer to Central America from the decade-old detention center at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
It reduced the prison camps’ census to 169 foreign men, just five of them convicted war criminals.
It was also the first transfer since Congress imposed harsh restrictions on the release of Guantánamo captives. In the instance of the two Uighurs, an administration source said, no waiver was required because a federal judge ordered them freed more than three years ago, on Oct. 7, 2008.
Attorneys identified the men as Hamad Memet, who turns 34 next month, and Abdul Razzak, whose age is not known. They were sent to Guantánamo from Afghanistan in 2002, as part of a roundup of foreign Muslim men in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“I’m told they were all smiles as they walked off the airplane,” said attorney Susan Baker Manning. “This really is a good resolution for them.”
They don’t speak Spanish, she said.
“They obviously need help after so long in that terrible place.”
And their new country had put together “the usual, and frankly generous, assistance that Salvador gives refugees — education and housing, and they’re going to be able to work on their language skills.”
U.S. forces moved the two captives to Salvador, a longstanding war-on-terror ally, “in accordance with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” the Pentagon statement said.
“The U.S. military enjoys a very strong partnership with our Salvadoran colleagues,” added Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, the Pentagon spokesman for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “They’ve proven themselves an immensely professional force in the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In Salvador, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the government granted refuge to two men who were “exonerated of any criminal charge” by the U.S. courts, and “in compliance with international treaties” that El Salvador had signed.
The statement also noted that friendly nations had in the past granted Salvadorans in exile a place of refuge — without specifically mentioning the safe haven the United States had given many Salvadorans during Central America’s civil wars.
Transfers from Guantánamo came to a halt in early 2011 once Congress imposed limitations on releases that required then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to personally sign waivers that vouched for the safety of a captive’s release. Since then, only two captives who had died departed the camps.
The last captive to leave the camps alive was Saed Farhi, 49, who was repatriated to his native Algeria despite his objections in January 2011.
This week’s transfer left three other Uighurs at Guantánamo’s Camp Iguana awaiting resettlement. They, like the two sent to El Salvador, had previously spurned an Obama administration special envoy’s offer to send them to the Pacific island nation of Palau.
As Chinese citizens, the Uighurs sought protections from return to their homeland for fear of religious persecution. Beijing had objected to the efforts to transfer the men and had sought their return for investigation of ties to a separatist movement.
“The Salvadoran government is doing this as a humanitarian gesture, and we’re thrilled and thankful,” Manning said. “The U.S. government has worked hard to find countries around the world to take these guys, notwithstanding the pressure from China.”
Other former Uighur captives have gone from Guantánamo to Albania, Bermuda and Switzerland.
With the Salvador transfer a total of 17 nations have now provided resettlement to Guantánamo detainees. The Bush administration sent some Uighurs and several Arabs to Albania. Then the Obama administration sent other freed captives to Belgium, Bermuda, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland.