Six detainees who had spent 12 years in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were sent to Uruguay as refugees in the first resettlement of detainees in a South American country. The prisoners—four Syrians, one Tunisian, and a Palestinian—were detained in 2002, but were never charged and made up the largest group ever resettled in the Western Hemisphere. They have been getting ready for the transfer for months and have been taking Spanish lessons at the detention center since March, reports the Miami Herald. The best-known of the six is Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a 43-year-old Syrian who has been on a prolonged hunger strike and filed a lawsuit to prevent the military from force-feeding him. Although his release is likely to make the case irrelevant, the fight over whether a videotape of the procedure should be released is likely to continue, details the New York Times.
The United States has transferred 19 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year, leaving a total of 136 detainees in the controversial prison that President Obama has vowed to shut down. The White House is optimistic that if it can get the number of detainees down to “two digits,” Congress will revoke the law preventing the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to U.S. soil, details the Times. If all low-level detainees approved for transfer are taken out of Guantánamo, some 69 would remain.
The transfer to Uruguay would have likely happened much sooner, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly dragged his feet on the paperwork. Although Uruguayan President José Mujica agreed to take the prisoners in January, Congress only got word of the deal in July. At that point, the transfer had become a hot topic in Uruguay’s presidential campaign. Former president Tabaré Vázquez, a Mujica ally, easily won the runoff presidential election on Nov. 30.
When the six former prisoners arrived Sunday morning, they looked “very happy and excited,” according to an unnamed source cited by Uruguayan newspaper El Observador. They were all immediately taken to hospital to undergo checkups.
The Guantanamo detainees are arriving in Uruguay as refugees and will be free to leave the country whenever they want, Mujica, a former political prisoner, said in an interview over the weekend. “The first day they want to leave they’ll be able to leave,” Mujica said. The outgoing president said that Guantánamo “is not a jail but rather a kidnapping nest because a jail is supposed to be subject to some rule of law … this has nothing.”
The Miami Herald details the count so far of countries that have taken in Guantanamo detainees:
Cape Verde 1
El Salvador 2
* Separately, Qatar is functioning as a one-year way-station for five Afghan prisoners from the Taliban released May 31, 2014.