Former Guantánamo hunger striker sent to Uruguay may have gone to Brazil

Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 43, outside his new home in Montevideo, Uruguay, in a 2015 file photo.
Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 43, outside his new home in Montevideo, Uruguay, in a 2015 file photo. JOSHUA PARTLOW

A former Guantánamo Bay prisoner transferred to Uruguay in 2014 has vanished and is believed to have quietly slipped into neighboring Brazil, U.S. officials said.

Law enforcement is now searching for former detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab in Brazil. A Syrian national, he is sometimes also identified as Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab.

“We are coordinating with officials in Brazil and Uruguay to determine his whereabouts,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive incident.

While the Obama administration declined to comment publicly about the case, officials believe that Dhiab crossed into Brazil without documents that would allow him to enter that country legally.

According to Uruguayan media, the country’s interior minister said on Thursday that while Dhiab would generally be free to travel, Brazilian officials had not allowed him to enter that country previously. It’s believed he may have crossed into Brazil using falsified documents or entered without going through border controls, local media reported.

The incident is likely to intensify friction between the White House and Congress over resettlement the last 80 detainees at the prison, a necessary step toward President Obama’s goal of shuttering the facility.

According to a military assessment made public by WikiLeaks, Dhiab was captured in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2002, and taken to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. While U.S. officials initially suspected him of having links to militants, he was never charged.

Dhiab spent 12 years at the top-security prison and periodically went on hunger strikes to protest his detention.

In December 2014, Dhiab and five other prisoners of Middle Eastern and North African origin were transferred to Uruguay. The resettlement deal was seen as a breakthrough for efforts to empty the prison of detainees who were seen as posing little threat.

While Obama still hopes to close the prison, lawmakers have repeatedly balked at accepting his plans for doing so. One of the chief reasons Republican lawmakers object is their concern about former detainees embracing militant activity after their release and their doubts about foreign nations’ ability to monitor them once they are set free.

Congress is now considering new legislation that would make it even harder for the Obama administration to resettle prisoners overseas or bring them to the United States.

Dhiab appeared to be struggling to adjust to life in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. He and other detainees complained they received insufficient financial support and many of them suffered health problems.

Officials did not comment on the details of the oversight arrangements for the six detainees in Uruguay. The Uruguayan embassy in Washington has declined repeated requests for comment on the status of Dhiab and the other detainees there.

“The decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat, and to ensure humane treatment,” the official said.

The Obama administration is in the final stages of arranging additional detainee transfers.

Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which advocates for detainee rights, said he was skeptical that Dhiab had left Uruguay or entered Brazil “because of the obvious political motive to try and stop transfers and prevent the closure of Guantánamo.”