Two former prisoners from Guantanamo who were transferred to El Salvador 17 months ago have quietly slipped out of this Central American nation.
When and how the two men, both ethnic Uighurs, left El Salvador is unknown, but their departure is sure to fuel worries that the United States has lost track of some Guantanamo detainees who have been released.
U.S. officials declined to say when they became aware that the former prisoners were no longer in El Salvador.
Uighurs familiar with the case said it is likely the two men headed to Turkey.
“We are aware that the two Uighurs who were resettled in El Salvador departed the country. However, we will not comment on the specifics of their decision to resettle elsewhere or their current whereabouts,” said Ian C. Moss, a spokesman for the State Department’s special envoy for Guantanamo closure.
Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) are a Muslim ethnic minority that inhabit far-western China. Many Uighurs oppose what they consider the Chinese occupation of their homeland, and some have engaged in armed resistance against Chinese control. Although Uighurs are considered Chinese nationals, most refuse to carry a Chinese passport, and mystery surrounds what travel documents the two men would have used to leave El Salvador.
The two men, Abdul Razak and Ahmad Muhamman, were among 22 ethnic Uighurs sent to the U.S. detention center at the Guantanamo Bay naval base since 2002. Three Uighurs remain at the prison camp.
The other 19 have been freed and transferred to receptive host countries or territories, beginning in 2006 when Albania accepted a group of five. Subsequently, six Uighur detainees were sent to the South Pacific island of Palau, two to Switzerland and four to Bermuda, a British overseas territory.
Razak and Muhamman were freed from Guantanamo on April 19, 2012, and flown to El Salvador, a largely Christian, Spanish-speaking nation with only a few thousand practicing Muslims.
A spokeswoman for El Salvador’s Foreign Ministry, Irene Sanchez, said the two were given refugee status in her country but refused to say anything further, noting that the nation “guarantees the right to privacy and confidentiality.”
Most of the Uighurs sent to Guantanamo were detained in Pakistan in early 2002 after fleeing an encampment in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains. Even after the U.S. government conceded before a federal court in 2008 that it did not consider the Uighur detainees “enemy combatants,” it had difficulty finding host governments to take them. None was willing to return to China.
“At a minimum, they would face life imprisonment there, or the death penalty,” said Nuri Musabay, the secretary general of the World Uyghur Congress, an exile group that advocates for greater autonomy for the Uighurs inside China.
Without valid travel documents, it was unknown how the two Uighurs passed immigration. Justice and Public Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo, who is in charge of the nation’s borders, did not respond to an email.
Musabay said he didn’t know where the two Uighurs went but said Turkey would be a logical choice since it is “like a European democratic country.” Another Uighur in exile, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said at least one of the Uighurs was in Turkey.
“Turkey’s Uighur population has sharply increased over the last five or six years,” Musabay said, adding that the Uighur language is related to Turkish.
Razak, who is in his late 30s, is from Artux, a county north of Kashgar, a city near the Chinese borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that traditionally has been a hotbed of Uighur nationalism. He left that area for Uzbekistan, then joined a village of Uighur refugees living in an encampment outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan, according to a written account by his former U.S. lawyer, Seema Saifee.
When U.S. soldiers invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Razak and 17 other Uighurs fled to Pakistan, where tribesmen handed them over to police, who in turn gave them to U.S. forces in exchange for $5,000 each, Saifee wrote.
Muhamman, a 35-year-old former farmer, was the only Uighur at Guantanamo considered a “high” risk detainee, said Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington concerned with counterterrorism.
At his combatant status review tribunal, a type of military court, Muhamman acknowledged that he’d been a weapons trainer at a camp under Abdul Haq, a fellow Uighur who was a top lieutenant to al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Joscelyn said. Abdul Haq was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan in early 2010, he added.
The camp was run by “heavy hitters . . . al Qaida and Taliban trainers,” he said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office released a document earlier this month that indicated concern that some freed Guantanamo detainees had taken up arms again. The summary of the document said that of 603 detainees freed from Guantanamo as of July 15, 100 were “confirmed or suspected of returning to terrorist activities.”
In the first known case of a former detainee to have been killed in battle in the Syrian civil war, an Islamic opposition group fighting to topple the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad posted a video of the funeral of a former Guantanamo prisoner, Moroccan-born Mohammed al Alami.
Other Guantanamo ex-detainees in addition to Uighurs have found themselves unhappy in the nations where U.S. officials transferred them.
One, Libyan-born Abdul al Ghazzawi, 50, was transferred from the naval base in Cuba to the country of Georgia in 2010, unwilling to return to Libya under then-strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Ghazzawi was expected to return to the Libyan capital of Tripoli Thursday evening.