Five men who were held for more than a decade without charge at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have been sent to Kazakhstan for resettlement, the U.S. government announced Tuesday.
Their transfer followed a recently renewed pledge by President Barack Obama for a stepped-up push to shut the internationally condemned detention center, where most prisoners have been held without being charged or tried.
The prisoners — two from Tunisia and three from Yemen — had been cleared for release from the prison by a government task force, but could not be sent to their homelands. The U.S. has sent hundreds of prisoners from Guantánamo to third countries. But this is the first time Kazakhstan has accepted non-Kazakh detainees for resettlement. The oil-rich, Muslim majority nation accepted a Kazakh detainee in Oct. 2008 and three others in Dec. 2006.
Kazakhstan’s acceptance of the five followed extensive negotiations. Though Kazakhstan is a key ally of Russia and China, it has cultivated areas of economic and diplomatic cooperation with the West.
Kazakhstan is looking to maintain good relations with all big powers, according to Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Hudson Institute.
“They have a multi-vector diplomacy,” Weitz said. Kazakhstan, likely concerned that with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, worries the U.S might lose interest in Central Asia and "is striving to keep the U.S. engaged in the region,” Weitz added.
The prisoners’ release brings the prison population at Guantánamo to 127, according to a Pentagon statement. More than half are of Yemeni origin.
The U.S. government has moved 28 prisoners out of the prison this year — the largest number since 2009 — and a senior U.S. official said the quickened pace would continue with further transfers expected in the coming weeks. On December 7, the U.S. resettled six Guantánamo detainees — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — in Uruguay.
Finding countries to accept detainees cleared for release remains an obstacle. With the exception of Uruguay, other Latin American nations have said they are not considering accepting prisoners.
The U.S. identified the Tunisians released this week as 49-year-old Adel Al-Hakeemy, and Abdallah Bin Ali al Lufti, who military records show is about 48. The Defense Department recommended that Lutfi be released in 2004, according to a report published on The New York Times.
The Yemenis are Asim Thabit Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, who is about 46; Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna, who is about 36; and Sabri Mohammad al Qurashi, who is about 44.
All five had been captured in Pakistan and turned over to the U.S. for detention as suspected Islamist fighters with ties to Al-Qaeda. None of the men were ever charged, and a government task force determined it was no longer necessary to hold them.
U.S. officials have yet to comment on why they could not be sent to their home countries. Washington has been unwilling to send Yemenis to their country because of unrest and militant activity there, while some Tunisians have feared persecution.
With news wires. Jenifer Fenton contributed to this report.