US transfers 2 Guantanamo prisoners to El Salvador

Posted April 19, 2012, at 7:55 p.m.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Two men from western China who have been held for nearly a decade without charge at the Guantanamo Bay prison amid a diplomatic struggle to find them homes, have been resettled in El Salvador, the U.S. military and lawyers for the men said Thursday.

The men, ethnic Uighurs from a region of China roiled by a separatist movement, are learning Spanish and gratefully settling into their new home in the Central American country, lawyers for the men said.

“They are well and very happy,” said Susan Baker Manning, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer for one of the men. “We are extremely pleased that the government of El Salvador has taken them in and granted them refuge.”

The U.S. confirmed their release in a brief statement that did not specify when they had been moved or provide any details of their resettlement. A lawyer for one of them said the State Department recommended that the lawyers not reveal the men’s identities because of Salvadoran privacy laws for people making refugee applications.

El Salvador’s foreign affairs office said in a statement that the men were brought into the country on Wednesday on humanitarian grounds and in recognition of the fact that other countries have taken in their citizens as refugees in the past because of the 1980-1992 civil war.

Their release brings the prisoner population at the U.S. base in Cuba to 169, including three more Uighurs who officials are eager to resettle in a third country.

Hopefully more nations will follow by opening their doors to the other men at Guantanamo who are cleared for release but cannot safely be repatriated,” said Seema Saifee, an attorney for one of the former prisoners.

Uighurs at Guantanamo posed a huge diplomatic headache for the U.S. government. Twenty-two of them were captured in Afghanistan at the start of the war and shipped to the base in Cuba because officials suspected they had links to al-Qaida. But it turned out they were not terrorists and had merely fled their homeland in search of opportunities and freedom abroad.

Officials determined they posed no threat and could be released but could not send them to back China because American law forbids extraditing people to countries where they could face persecution and torture. China, which has been fighting the Uighur separatist movement in largely Muslim western Xinjiang province, wanted the men send back there and pressured other countries not to accept them as refugees.

U.S. courts and officials blocked efforts to settle the men in the U.S. and the prisoners were left in limbo. Through painstaking diplomatic efforts, Uighur prisoners from have settled in Albania, Bermuda, Switzerland, the Pacific island of Palau and elsewhere.

Eric Tirschwell, another lawyer for one of the men, said all those released to date are “living peaceful, productive lives and many have been reunited with or started families.”

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Associated Press correspondent Marcos Aleman in El Salvador contributed to this report.

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