Uruguay has agreed to accept some prisoners held at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, President Jose Mujica said on Thursday, and media reports indicated he might take in five detainees as refugees.
The Obama administration, which wants to close the center currently holding 154 men captured after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, has been talking to several countries about relocating inmates.
“It's a request for human-rights reasons,” Mujica told journalists while attending an unrelated farming event..
Mujica, himself a former long-held prisoner from the urban guerillas group the Tupamaro, said President Barack Obama “has asked a bunch of countries if they can take some and I told him yes.”
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At the prison camps Thursday, a civilian employee who has worked as a linguist, librarian, and Arabic-English teacher said that, just last week, he offered two days of first-ever classroom instruction in Spanish to an undisclosed number of detainees.
“Some of them are very enthusiastic about learning,” said the teacher, a native Arabic speaker who told his students they could call him Ahmed, a fake name.
None know any Spanish, the teacher told the Miami Herald. So his combined two hours of instruction last week taught simple requests and basic conversation.
“It was a good start,” he said, noting that he taught the students seated in a circle with a guard in the classroom. “It is a classroom environment that is safe for everyone involved.”
The prison camps commander, Navy Rear Adm. Richard Butler, told the Herald this week that some captives asked for the Spanish classes following a visit to the detention center a few weeks earlier by a delegation from Uruguay.
In Montevideo, the Associated Press quoted U.S. Ambassador Julissa Reynoso as denying that the deal is done, saying that “we’re still talking.” She specifically denied that the governments had agreed that five prisoners would go to Uruguay.
“That’s not correct. We’re consulting and in conversation, but there is no deal to make a process like this in Uruguay,” she told Montevideo’s El Espectador radio show.
“If the inmates of Guantánamo want to make their nests in Uruguay, they can do it,” Mujica told Channel 10’s Subrayado, according to the AP. But he said he told his negotiators that he “would not be their jailer.”
Guantánamo has been criticized by human-rights groups, with some of its prisoners held for a decade or longer without being charged or given a trial. Opened by President George W. Bush in 2002 to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas, Guantánamo became a symbol of what some critics call the excesses of his war on terror.
“They are coming as refugees and there will be a place for them in Uruguay if they want to bring their families,” said Mujica, who spent 14 years in prison before and during his country's 1973-1985 dictatorship.
U.S. officials confirmed that talks about Guantánamo had taken place with Uruguay but would not give more details.
“The U.S. government maintains high level conversations with the Uruguayan government on various global affairs,” the U.S. embassy in Montevideo said in a statement.
“One of those has been the closure of Guantánamo, one of the Obama administration's priorities for its humanitarian implications.”
A U.S. State Department official said “the United States has engaged the government of Uruguay for help in closing the detention facility as we have engaged a range of governments.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said many governments, including the Organization of American States and the Latin American community, “have called on the United States to close down the detention facility and we look forward to their continued cooperation.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.