The Obama administration released six Guantanamo Bay detainees and sent them to Uruguay for resettlement as refugees amid the president’s renewed efforts to close down the facility.
Upon taking office, President Obama pledged to close down the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, commonly known as Gitmo.
The six individuals — identified as four Syrians, a Tunisian, and a Palestinian — had been detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda since 2002 but were never officially charged.
They had been cleared for release by an interagency task force since 2009, but the U.S. was having a hard time finding a country that would take them.
The men could not be sent to their country of origin because they may face persecution or because of a lack of security, among other reasons.
“It was the largest single group of inmates to depart the wartime prison in Cuba since 2009, and the first detainees to be resettled in South America,” reports The New York Times (NYT).
Their transfer to Uruguay marks the largest group of Guantanamo detainees sent to the Western Hemisphere. El Salvador, the only other Latin American country to give Gitmo prisoners sanctuary, took two in 2012, but have since left. Bermuda took four in 2009.
In a statement released early in the morning on Dec. 7, the Pentagon announced the transfer and identified the men as Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Hussain Shaabaan, Omar Mahmoud Faraj, Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy, Mohammed Tahanmatan, and Jihad Diyab.
Among the Syrians were Ahjam, 37; Shaabaan, 32; Faraj, 33; and Diyab, 43.
Tahanmattan, 35, was identified as the Palestinian and Ourgy, 49, as the Tunisian.
Mr. Diyab, one of the Syrians, is the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the military’s use of force-feeding. He went on a long-term hunger strike protesting his detention at Guantanamo.
“As directed by the president’s Jan. 22, 2009, executive order, the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive review of this case,” the Pentagon stated. “As a result of that review, which examined a number of factors, including security issues, these men were unanimously approved for transfer by the six departments and agencies comprising the task force.”
Their transfer brings the number of detainees currently held at Guantanamo down to 136, the lowest since the prison was opened in January 2002. There are 67 prisoners who have been cleared for release if security conditions can be met. The majority of the detainees who remain at the facility are from Yemen.
As required by law, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel informed Congress of the Obama administration’s intent to transfer the Gitmo detainees to Uruguay and approved their release.
“The United States is grateful to the Government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” noted the Pentagon in the statement. “The United States coordinated with the Government of Uruguay to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million with a Muslim population of an estimated 300 individuals, confirmed receiving the detainees.
Uruguayan President José Mujica agreed to accept the men as a humanitarian deed. Mujica himself spent 14 years imprisoned in Uruguay and has publicly criticized the Guantanamo Bay detention center, reports NYT.
“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,” Clifford Sloan, the U.S. State Department who negotiates detainee transfers, said in a statement distributed to media outlets. “The support we are receiving from our friends and allies is critical to achieving our shared goal of closing Guantanamo.”
The Associated Press (AP) points out that of the 19 prisoners who have been transferred out of Guantanamo by the Obama administration this year, all but one were released within the last 30 days.
Officials inside and outside the government say more releases are expected by the end of this month.
“Obama administration officials had been frustrated that the [recent] transfer took so long, blaming outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for not approving the move sooner,” reports AP. “They said after Mujica agreed to take the men in January, the deal sat for months on Hagel’s desk, awaiting his signature as required by law. The Pentagon didn’t send the notification of the transfer to Congress until July.”
Upon taking office, Obama pledged to close down the Guantanamo prison, but has met resistance from Congress. Lawmakers have banned the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil for any reason and Congress has also placed restrictions on sending them overseas.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.