Guantánamo

Uruguay says Guantánamo refugees’ families welcome

A boy passes by journalists waiting Monday outside the military hospital where six former Guantánamo Bay prisoners are being kept, in Montevideo.
A boy passes by journalists waiting Monday outside the military hospital where six former Guantánamo Bay prisoners are being kept, in Montevideo. AP

The six Guantánamo Bay prisoners sent to Uruguay to be resettled as refugees are welcome to bring their families, get jobs and cheer for the local soccer team of their choice, the country’s defense minister said Monday, and one issued a letter thanking the country for taking them in.

Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told local radio Carve that the six, who arrived early Sunday, are undergoing medical checkups and are doing well.

He said the government will help them find work and they will be fully welcomed into Uruguayan society. As with earlier immigrants, he said, he expects them to find “a job, work to put bread on the table, bring the family, live in peace and sit in the stands of a stadium, becoming a fan of some soccer team.”

The minister said that one of the men who had been on a long-term hunger strike has begun eating and will soon be released from the hospital.

The six — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda in 2002 but were never charged. They had been cleared for release since 2009 but could not be sent home, and the U.S. struggled to find countries willing to take them.

Fernandez Huidobro denied that the six had any relationship with terrorism, noting the U.S. had cleared them.

While recent polls showed most Uruguayans opposed asylum for the ex-prisoners, reaction has been muted. Sen. Ope Pasquet of the opposition Colorado Party said on Twitter that he agreed with the asylum for humanitarian reasons, but said Congress should have been consulted.

One of the men, Abedlhadi Omar Faraj, issued a letter through his attorney thanking Uruguayans for accepting the group, and even said he’d already become a fan of the country’s national soccer team.

The Syrian described himself as an innocent man from a modest background who had worked as a mechanic and butcher before he was captured and turned over to U.S. forces in Pakistan for ransom and then sent to Guantanamo as a suspected terrorist.

“Were it not for Uruguay, I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today,” said the letter released by his attorney, Ramzi Kassem, in New York. “It is difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us.

“We cannot thank you enough for welcoming us in your land.”

He said he looked forward to following the national soccer team, nicknamed the Celeste, in the next Copa America, South America’s chief regional soccer tournament.

Uruguayan President José Mujica agreed to accept the men as a humanitarian gesture and said they would be given help getting established in a country of 3.3 million with a total Muslim population of perhaps 300 people.

Uruguay already has taken in 42 Syrian civil war refugees, who arrived in October, and has said it will take about 80 more.

They are coming to what may be the only country in the Americas without an Islamic mosque, said Tamar Chaky, director of the Islamic Cultural Organization of Uruguay. He promised that the local Muslim community would welcome them, but said there had been no contact with the government.

The U.S. has now transferred 19 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year, and 136 remain, the lowest number since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002.

The U.S. now holds 67 men at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release or transfer but, like the six sent to Uruguay, can’t go home because they might face persecution, a lack of security or some other reason.

This weekend’s transfer was the largest group sent to the Western Hemisphere. Four Guantánamo prisoners were sent to Bermuda in 2009 and two were sent to El Salvador in 2012 but have since left.

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