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December 31, 2013 12:44 PM A Milestone on the Grim and Shameful Path to Closing Guantanamo

By Ryan Cooper

After 9/11 and the rapid invasion of Afghanistan, a bunch of people were semi-randomly rounded up and socked away in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Among their number were 22 ethnic Uighurs from China captured largely by mistake.

Today, more than twelve years later, we freed the final three of those 22, sending them to Slovakia. They had been stuck in legal limbo since 2008:

Although the military decided that the three men were not at war with the United States and that they should be released — and a judge ordered them freed in 2008 — they remained stranded because of difficulties in finding a safe and agreeable place to send them…
With these transfers, a total of nine detainees have departed Guantánamo in December, and 11 since last summer, when President Obama revived his stagnant efforts to close the prison by appointing Cliff Sloan as a new State Department envoy for the effort to winnow down its population of low-level detainees. There are 155 prisoners remaining at Guantánamo. Of those, about half have long been approved for transfer if security conditions can be met in the receiving country, the bulk of whom are Yemenis.

Adam Serwer provides some context for this decision:

According to national security journalist Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture, the U.S. government knew by 2003 that the Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority from China, were not terrorists. But the U.S. wouldn’t send them back to China, where Uighurs had faced torture and repression, but neither would they release them into the United States…
The original plan, Klaidman reported, was that two Uighur detainees would be resettled in the U.S. as a good-faith gesture to persuade other nations to take detainees in an effort to empty the prison. When the recently retired Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf got wind of the plan in May 2009, he took to the floor of the House to accuse the Obama administration of wanting to let terrorists run free in American cities.
“Let’s be clear: these terrorists would not be held in prisons but released into neighborhoods,” Wolf said. “They should not be released at all into the United States. Do members realize who these people are? There have been published reports that the Uighurs were members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, a designated terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the Uighurs “instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.” He then urged Obama to send them back to China. One of the prisoners responded to Gingrich through their attorney: ”Why does he hate us so much?”

The Obama administration is to blame in part here, for distinct half-heartedness in the face of opposition (and eventually worse), but it’s little compared to the monstrous, cynical opportunism on the other side. As Serwer writes, “Republicans, stung by Obama’s attack on the Bush era as one of national security lawlessness, saw an opportunity to keep Gitmo open and saddle Obama with his predecessor’s legacy.”

When it was clear even to the Bush administration—Bush himself said the prison should be closed—that these people had been rounded up by mistake, and they were being deprived of their freedom for no reason, the response of the demagogues—and eventually the entire Republican establishment, and most of the Democratic one, was to deny the administration the funding to close Guantánamo.

Make no mistake, the Democrats are no heroes here. But publicly denouncing out-groups known to be innocent of any crime is one of the most evil things it is possible for a politician to do. In the grim history of this time, Wolf and Gingrich will be remembered as of a piece with Bilbo, Smith, Russell, and Wallace.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

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