Six men held for more than a decade at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, arrived in Uruguay for resettlement on Sunday, part of a slow-moving push by the Obama administration to close the facility.
The six prisoners — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — were never charged with crimes and had been approved for transfer for years. A move initially planned for earlier this year was apparently held up by the Defense Department.
Early Sunday morning, the men finally arrived in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, where five were taken to a military hospital. The sixth, reportedly in a more delicate state, was taken to a different hospital, according to local media.
"We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action," said Clifford Sloan, the State Department envoy on Guantánamo who had negotiated the resettlement deal in January.
"The support we are receiving from our friends and allies is critical to achieving our shared goal of closing Guantánamo, and this transfer is a major milestone."
President Barack Obama took office nearly six years ago promising to shut the prison, citing its damage to America’s image around the world. But he has been unable to do so, partly because of obstacles posed by Congress.
With Sunday’s resettlement, 136 men remain at the prison. Sixty-seven have been approved for transfer, most of them from Yemen. More are expected to be released by year’s end.
Uruguayan President José Mujica, an ardent critic of the Guantánamo facility, said the resettled six would have the status of refugees. “The day they want to leave, they can leave,” he said, rebuffing a U.S. condition that they stay in Uruguay for at least two years.
One of the prisoners, Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 43, a father of four, has been at the center of a high-profile legal battle that sought to change his treatment at Guantánamo. To protest his detention, Dhiab has been on an on-and-off hunger strike for years and force-fed.
Dhiab’s force-feeding and forcible cell extractions were recorded, but the Obama administration recently appealed a federal judge’s ruling that the tapes be released. Seventy-six members of Congress and at least 16 news organizations, including the New York Times and Reuters, are seeking access to the tapes.
Dhiab, whose wife and children are refugees of the Syrian war, lost one of his sons last year while he was in prison, according to Reprieve International, the U.K.-based NGO that is representing him.
Cori Crider, a director at Reprieve and one of Dhiab's attorneys, thanked Mujica for taking a "historic stand" and said Dhiab looked forward to being reunited with his family and "beginning his life again."
"Reprieve hopes that other countries will follow the positive example set by the Uruguayan government today and help President Obama close this shameful prison," she said in a statement.
The other prisoners sent to Uruguay are Abdelhadi Faraj, Ali Hussein al-Shaaban and Ahmad Adnan Ahjam of Syria; Mohammed Taha Mattan, a Palestinian; and Muhammed El Ougerghi, a Tunisian.
Faraj, who has been in custody since 2002 and was cleared for release in 2010, has written of what he describes as abusive force-feeding practices. “I am forced into a restraint chair … Big guards grab my head with both hands. I feel like my skull is being crushed.”
Mattan, from the West Bank, joined an Islamic missionary movement and traveled to Pakistan in September 2001, where he was taken by Pakistani security forces and later transferred to Guantánamo. He has endured “brutal physical and emotional torture, isolation, humiliation and despair,” according to his lawyer Lauren Carasik.
All six could have been resettled almost a year ago, when Mujica formally offered to accept them.
In February lawyers for some of the prisoners were told their clients would be sent in “a matter of weeks, not months,” to Uruguay, where they would receive help resettling — including housing, stipends, language classes and assistance finding jobs.
But the transfer did not happen. As of late June, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had not provided Congress with a 30-day notice of transfer as required, according to the men’s lawyers.
In August a plane arrived at Guantánamo to take the six prisoners to Uruguay, according to The New York Times.
But Mujica was having second thoughts, afraid the transfer would be a political risk because of upcoming presidential elections. The opposition candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou, criticized the transfer (but lost the election). After sitting idle at the base for four days, the plane left without the prisoners, the Times reported.
In an interview with TNU TV on Sunday, Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter and prisoner, explained his decision to grant the former prisoners resettlement by saying it would have been cowardly not to help Obama “deal with a terrible mess he’s been left,” presumably referring to George W. Bush’s administration.
The Guantánamo base, he said, “is not a prison but a nest of kidnapping because a prison requires some kind of rights, the presence of lawyers, the decisions of a judge or whatever, something to do with justice. This place has none of that.”
With wire services