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US releases final Uighur detainees from Guantanamo five years after court order

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USA American Flag (STOCK)

The United States moved another step closer to shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp this morning, announcing that it had finished relocating the ethnic Uighur Chinese nationals who had been detained there for around a decade. The Pentagon said that it was releasing the final three Uighur detainees to Slovakia, which has agreed to take them in. "This transfer and resettlement constitutes a significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, says in a statement.

"A significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility."

Though a "significant milestone," the transfer comes after much delay. According to The New York Times, the US military determined as early as 2003 that these three detainees should be released. Later, a 2008 court order mandated the release of all Uighur detainees still at Guantanamo — of which there were 17 at the time — but the process has been piecemeal due to troubles with finding countries to take them.

In total, the Times reports that 22 Uighurs have been detained in Guantanamo, most of them captured in Afghanistan in the early 2000s when the military believed them to be associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. In reality, many had simply fled from China, where they've been persecuted as an ethnic minority. In 2004, the Times reported that the Uighur detainees did not want to be returned from Guantanamo to China, fearing that they would be considered terrorists and tortured or killed.

Pressure from the Chinese government has reportedly kept many countries from offering to take the Uighur detainees in, making the release process a slow one. The Times reports that six were transferred out by the Bush administration, while 12 were released between 2009 and 2010. But releasing the remaining five became a problem when they refused to go to certain countries. Two finally went last year to El Salvador, while these last three were said to have been waiting for a country they preferred more — despite extending their stay in detention.

The ultimate closure of Guantanamo is likely still as much a ways off as always. Though the US has completed a major series of prisoner releases, 155 detainees still remain at the facility.