U.S. sends 6 Guantánamo captives to new lives in Uruguay

An ambulance transporting some of the six detainees arriving from Guantanamo heads for the Military Hospital in Montevideo, early on Sunday.
An ambulance transporting some of the six detainees arriving from Guantanamo heads for the Military Hospital in Montevideo, early on Sunday. AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. military dropped off six long-ago cleared Guantánamo captives in Uruguay on Sunday — culminating a complex, on-again, off-again year-long deal to resettle the men in the nation of President José Mujica, himself a long-held political prisoner.

Among the six was hunger striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 43, whose failed federal court fight to stop the military from force feeding him raised his profile among the half-dozen, little-known detainees from Syria, Palestine and Tunisia.

None had ever been charged with a crime, and now all are to start new lives in the South American nation with the help of some Spanish lessons offered to them since March at the U.S. Navy prison in Cuba.

All six prisoners sent to Uruguay got to Guantánamo in 2002.

The other five men, in their 30s and 40s, were identified as Syrians Abdelhadi Faraj, Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Hussein al Shabaan, a Tunisian named Adel Bin Mohammed Ouerghi and Palestinian Mohammed Taha Matan.

All six men were being evaluated at a military hospital in Montevideo on Sunday. They had not yet met with their lawyers but at least two had spoken to their attorneys by phone. Attorneys for the men were consulting with government officials regarding the immediate next steps for the men.

Dhiab’s attorney, Alka Pradhan, said Dhiab was extremely frail in his final months at Guantánamo and “wants to put this nightmare behind him.”

She said he was particularly grateful to Mujica for “recognizing that he is a victim of injustice and for giving him the opportunity to build a new life” for himself and family, a wife and three children he hadn’t seen for 13 years.

He once ran a restaurant, the lawyer said, hopes “that once he recovers from the mistreatment and ill health he suffered at Guantánamo, he can revive those skills.”

The Uruguyan transfer, nearly a year in the making, was one of the worst-kept secrets in Guantánamo’s usually clandestine deal making. A prison camp admiral prematurely disclosed it, members of Congress openly questioned it and domestic politics in both nations repeatedly sidelined it.

Yet the State Department envoy who negotiated it, Cliff Sloan, called it “a major milestone” in the Obama administration’s continuing search for nations willing to resettle the remaining 67 cleared detainees held at Guantánamo among 136 foreign captives.

The weekend release cleared Guantánamo’s last four Syrian detainees, meaning the prison now holds captives from 18 nations. The majority are Yemeni, like the men who just left for Uruguay, ineligible for repatriation even with security agreements because of violence and instability in their homelands.

As a result, Obama administration officials have long considered the Mujica deal a lynchpin in their goal of closing the controversial prison camps by finding more resettlement nations in largely untapped South America.

Mujica has been described as the Nelson Mandela of Latin America, a rebel-turned-peacemaker. Now, U.S. officials hope he has the moral authority to persuade other regional leaders to take in cleared captives, too.

In terms of timing, the Guantánamo release occurred days before Secretary of State John Kerry travels to the region and three months after José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, appealed to member nations to take in some of the prisoners “who have not been judged, nor will they be, for any crime.”

While this weekend’s was the first resettlement in South America, the Obama administration had earlier arranged for Bermuda to take in four cleared Guantánamo detainees in 2009 and El Salvador to resettle two in 2012. All were Uighurs, Chinese citizens captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan whom a federal judge ordered released from the detention center as wrongfully detained. The two men sent to Salvador left, probably to Turkey.

The roots of Sunday’s transfer were planted in January when Sloan, the State Department special envoy for Guantánamo closure, traveled to Uruguay to pitch the idea, according to Obama administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about it.

He found the nation’s now 79-year-old president, Mujica, sympathetic as a former 14-year political prisoner who spent much of his captivity in solitary confinement for his guerrilla activities with the Tupamaro revolutionary movement.

In February, Montevideo sent a delegation to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba to interview detainees. They chose six for resettlement, among them Dhiab, a 6-5 sickly man whose lawyers said he refused to eat not to die but to protest his indefinite detention despite notice that he could leave once a nation agreed to take him.

While some quarters of the U.S. government were pleased with the deal, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was slow to approve it. It sat on his desk for months, awaiting his signature, while intelligence analysts evaluated it. Before he signed it, the White House ordered the truly clandestine transfer of five Taliban prisoners to Qatar in a trade for POW Bowe Bergdahl on May 31 — drawing protest on Capitol Hill that Congress had not been informed in advance.

Hagel finally approved the Uruguay release in July and sent the required 30-day notice to Congress.

By then, however, the disclosure had stirred domestic debate in Uruguay in the midst of the presidential campaign to pick Mujica’s successor. Mujica, who under term limits must step down next year, announced that he would postpone their arrival until his successor was elected, so they could consult on the deal.

Uruguay elected Mujica’s party ally, Tabare Vazquez, on Nov.30, and the offer of sanctuary was back on track. The six men were flown from the remote U.S. Navy base late Saturday night.

Within hours, Sloan released a statement:

“We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action, and to President Mujica for his strong leadership in providing a home for individuals who cannot return to their own countries.

“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 in our efforts to close the facility.”

In the interim between the deal and delivery of the six detainees, the U.S. government resettled five other Arabs in Europe and repatriated a Kuwaiti and Saudi. Justice Department lawyers also defended the treatment of Guantánamo hunger strikers in a federal court challenge brought by Dhiab that would never have happened had the deal not been sidelined.

In the end, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled the way the U.S. troops treated Dhiab was not intentionally designed to inflict pain on the Syrian, whom she called “clearly a very sick, depressed, and desperate man.”

From her court on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., Kessler wrote, “It is hard for those of us in the continental United States to fully understand his situation and the atmosphere at Guantánamo Bay. He has been cleared for release since 2009 and one can only hope that that release will take place shortly.”

But the case cast a harsh spotlight on prison conditions and uncovered videos of his treatment that both his attorneys and 16 news organizations — including the Miami Herald and its parent company McClatchy want released to the public.

Dhiab’s departure “doesn’t change at all our posture that videotape evidence is part of the court record and the public has a right to see it,” said First Amendment attorney Dave Schulz. “Judge Kessler has already determined that there is no compelling reason to keep the videotapes completely secret from the American people.”

At the Pentagon this week, Sloan’s counterpart, Paul Lewis, defended the process of resettlement — which some Republicans in Congress have increasingly been criticizing as risky and haphazard.

“Security is always top-of-mind prior to any decision to transfer a detainee,” Lewis said in an interview Friday, “and each detainee is closely reviewed by six departments before he is eligible for transfer.”

The released detainees

About the six men, based on leaked Department of Defense prison documents:

▪ Abdelhadi Faraj, born in 1975 or 1981, a Syrian captured in late December 2001 in Pakistan, after fleeing Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains, arrived at Guantánamo in June 2002. He was held as Prisoner No. 329.

▪ Adel Bin Mohammed Ouerghi, 49, a Tunisian whose capture history is murky, and for whom no Guantánamo photo has been leaked. He arrived at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba in May 2002, and was held as Prisoner No. 502.

▪ Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 43, a Syrian, was captured in Lahore, Pakistan, in April 2002. He got to Guantánamo in August 2002 and since the outbreak of the current, long-running hunger strike has sought a federal court order to stop his forced-feedings. He was held as Prisoner No. 722.

▪ Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, 37, a Syrian, was captured in late December 2001 in Pakistan, after fleeing Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains, and arrived at Guantánamo in June 2002. He was held as Prisoner No. 326.

▪ Ali Hussein al Shaaban, 32, a Syrian, was captured in late December 2001 in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains, and arrived at Guantánamo in June 2002. He was held as Prisoner No. 327.

▪ Mohammed Taha Matan, about 35, a Palestinian, was captured in a series of raids on suspected al-Qaida safe houses in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002 on the same day and in the same city that the the CIA and Pakistani security forces captured a high-value detainee known as Abu Zubaydah. He got to Guantánamo in June 2002 with more than a dozen men captured that day, many of them since released. He was held as Prisoner No. 684.

Countries that have resettled detainees

Albania 11

Belgium 1

Bermuda 4

Bulgaria 1

Cape Verde 1

El Salvador 2

France 2

Georgia 6

Germany 2

Hungary 1

Ireland 2

Latvia 1

Palau 6

Portugal 2

Qatar* 5

Slovakia 8

Spain 3

Switzerland 3

Uruguay 6

* Separately, Qatar is functioning as a one-year, way-station for five Afghan prisoners from the Taliban released May 31, 2014.