They were held for 12 years without charges, subject to torturous interrogation methods, and ordered to be released by a U.S. federal judge in 2008.
Yet, it was not until the final days of 2013 that the last three of 22 ethnic Uighurs from China were freed from the U.S. military's notorious offshore prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Department of Defense announced Tuesday that the three men — Yusef Abbas, Hajiakbar Abdulghuper and Saidullah Khalik — have been "resettled" to Slovakia, making them "the last ethnic Uighur Chinese nationals to be transferred from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility."
"These men have became a symbol of the tragedy of Guantánamo," said Wells Dixon, senior attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, in an interview with Common Dreams.
The 22 men were erroneously detained in eastern Afghanistan in 2001, where they said they had come to escape persecution in China, where they are an ethnic minority.
"They were given to the U.S. for detention at a time when U.S. forces were heavily reliant on Afghan proxies who had their own agendas and who accepted bounties for captives," writes Spencer Ackerman for The Guardian.
During the early period of their captivity, the men were subject to sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, and isolation, according to a 2009 congressional testimony.
As early as 2003, the U.S. military determined that the three Uigher captives were "not affiliated with Al Qaeda or a Taliban leader" according to leaked dossiers reported by The New York Times.
"All of the Uighurs were ordered released to the United States in October 2008 by a federal judge," explained Dixon. "The Bush administration appealed that decision, and they were able to successfully block that effort. The Obama administration had a plan to bring the Uighurs to the United States in 2009, but Obama was unwilling to exert the political capital necessary to bring the men here."
The inmates languished in the prison throughout the lengthy and bureaucratic process of finding them countries for transfer, as China exerted political pressure to block countries from accepting them. "They really became pawns in a large diplomatic saga between the U.S. and China," said Dixon.
Uighur captives were eventually released to countries including El Salvador, Bermuda, Palau, and Albania.
"Slovakia and the other countries that accepted Uigher transfers deserve a lot of credit for doing what larger countries like the U.S., Germany, Australia, and Canada have refused to do," said Dixon. "Those are the countries that have sizable Uighur populations outside of China."
"In the case of the U.S., the decision not to accept the men and resettle them here in the Washington, DC area was due largely to politics and fear mongering," said Dixon.
The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by President Obama last week, loosens some restrictions on transferring Guantánamo inmates to other countries, but retains the ban on their transfer to the U.S..
There are 155 detainees remaining in Guantánamo, most of whom have not been charged for a crime.
"The irony is when these Uighur men were captured and turned over to the United States, they thought they had been saved," said Dixon.