As President Barack Obama pushes to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, six prisoners held for 12 years have been released and sent as refugees to Uruguay.
According to Yahoo News, the six men were detained as suspects but were never charged. The four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian were believed to be militants working with al-Qaeda in 2002. Even though they were cleared for release in 2009, the U.S. had a hard time finding countries that would allow them to enter their borders.
Uruguay is a South America nation with a very small Muslim population. President Jose Mujica granted permission for the men to enter his country as a humanitarian gesture. He said they would be given help getting established in the country of 3.3 million. The Muslim population in Uruguay is approximately 300 people.
“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,” U.S. State Department envoy Clifford Sloan said.
Yahoo News reported that the Pentagon verified that Syrian Abu Wa’el, 34, was one of the transferred men. He had been on a long-term hunger strike that became a legal battle in U.S. courts because of the military’s use of force feeding him. The other Syrians sent to Uruguay on Saturday as were identified as Ali Husain Shaaban, 32, Ahmed Adnan Ajuri, 37, and Abdelahdi Faraj, 33. Also released were Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan, 35, and 49-year-old Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi of Tunisia.
Uruguay’s government issued a statement confirming the arrival, siding with Mujica’s letter to Obama, saying the men had been subject to “an atrocious kidnapping” at Guantanamo and urging the U.S. to end its 53-year-old embargo of Cuba.
Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer for Faraj, said he was “deeply grateful” to Uruguay for accepting his client.
“By welcoming our client and the others as refugees and free men, not as prisoners, Uruguay has shown that it truly possesses the courage of its convictions,” said Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York.
In October, Uruguay took in 42 Syrian civil war refugees and has stated it will take about 80 more.
The men were transferred to what may be the only country in the Americas without an Islamic mosque. Tamar Chaky, Director of the Islamic Cultural Organization of Uruguay has promised that the local Muslim community would welcome them. However, he said there has been no contact from the government.
The U.S. has now transferred 19 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year, most within the last 30 days. There are 136 men remaining, the lowest number since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002. Of those still imprisoned, 67 have been cleared for release or transfer. These prisoners are unable to go home for various security reasons. Officials stated several more releases are expected by the end of the year.