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Freed from Guantanamo, Six Detainees Begin New Life in Uruguay

Four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian have been flown from the US military prison in Cuba to their new home in South America. VICE News asks what they can expect in the Spanish-speaking country of 3.4 million.

by Katie Engelhart
Dec 10 2014, 11:10am

Image via Reuters

A few months back, lawyer Eldon Greenberg printed off the Wikipedia entry for Uruguay and passed it on to his client, Abd al Hadi Faraj — also known as Inmate 329 at the US military prison on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Independently, attorney Michael Mone photocopied pages from his 15-year-old son's Spanish language workbook and mailed them to Guantanamo, so that his client, Ali Hussein Shaaban, "could start to learn the language" of his soon-to-be home. Mone also included a copy of a recent New York Times travel article called 36 Hours in Montevideo, Uruguay, which lauds the city's "fin-de-siècle architecture" — and recommends a Russian-choreographed ballet.

On Sunday, six detainees were transferred from Guantanamo to Uruguay, where they will be resettled. The move represents the largest single relocation of inmates from the prison since 2009, and the first transfer to South America.

The men — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — were held for over a decade without charges and had long been cleared for release. But American officials had struggled to find a safe host country in which to set them free.

The men's motherlands were considered too unstable to allow repatriation — and Washington, via the National Defense Authorization Act, prohibits "the release of detainees into the United States for any purpose." And so on Sunday, after months of diplomatic wrangling between American and Uruguayan officials, the six ex-prisoners found themselves on a military transport plane to sunny Montevideo.

"Suddenly, they were 40,000 feet in the air… passengers, sitting in seats. 'Buckle your seatbelts!'" said lawyer Jerry Cohen, counsel for Mohammed Abdullah Tahamuttan, in an interview with VICE News. "Compared to how they came to Guantanamo, drugged and chained on a military carrier plane…"

There, in Uruguay, the ex-detainees will live as free men. In other instances, former Guantanamo prisoners are required to undergo house arrest or formal "rehabilitation" after their release from the internationally impugned detention center in Cuba. But on Sunday, the six men were received by Uruguay as refugees, free to roam at will. On Monday, they began filling out formal applications for refugee status.

"They are coming as refugees and the first day that they want to leave, they can leave," said Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, in an interview with state television. Mujica has referred to Guantanamo a "disgrace" — and to detentions there as "atrocious kidnapping[s]."

But what awaits these men in their unlikely new home? VICE News spoke with four attorneys representing the six men, to piece together a picture of post-Guantanamo life in Uruguay.

Soon after their plane touched ground on Sunday, the six men were hurried to a military hospital for several days of evaluation. One of the detainees, the Syrian Abu Wa'el Dhiab, arrived weakened from a prolonged hunger strike, which he undertook to protest his detention. Reports indicate that he is now eating solids.

After they are cleared for release, the men will be shown their new digs. All six will be provided shared room and board for several months in Montevideo. Lawyers say they will live together until they feel ready to set off on their own. The lawyer Mone said his client is already aching to get on with his new life. "I keep telling them, they need to be patient."

Mone spoke to VICE News from Montevideo — over an evening glass of wine — after spending the day with his client: "I got to see him for the first time ever without the shackles on. Without the cuffs."

Over the next few months, said the lawyer Cohen, the men will go through "an indoctrination period of just learning life skills. They have spent 12 years in confinement — so just learning to cross the street, make a phone call." The men will also receive free training and assistance finding work — and can eventually bring over their families. Uruguayan Defence Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told local radio that the men are expected 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."

One ex-inmate, Abd al Hadi Faraj, already released an open letter through his lawyer, in which he thanked Uruguay and indeed declared himself a fan of La Celeste, the country's national side.

The men will also get Spanish language instruction. Indeed, several of the ex-inmates, in anticipation of their move to Montevideo, began studying Spanish while in detention — under the tutelage of an Arabic-speaking translator, who lawyers admitted didn't speak much Spanish himself.

One of the ex-detainees, Mohammed Abdullah Tahamuttan, still has a few reservations about Uruguay: namely, that its Muslim population is so teeny — just 300, in a country of some 3.3 million. "But," his lawyer rued, "anything is better than being at Guantanamo."

The Uruguay release, finalized last spring, was many months in the making — and was subject to repeated delays. Outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was accused of foot-dragging, when it came to approving inmates for final release. Within Congress, Republican lawyers have urged the Obama administration to stop all transfers out of Guantanamo, on national security grounds.

President Mujica agreed to accept the Guantanamo detainees back in March — reportedly after being approached by American diplomats. The Uruguayan leader told the Buenos Aires Herald that Guantanamo was an "embarrassment to humanity" and that if America was willing "to put an end to that embarrassment, the least we can do is try to help."

Mujica, a former leftist guerilla, was himself jailed between 1973-1985, under Uruguay's military dictatorship. For over a decade, he lived in solitary confinement. The president is understood to have accepted the detainees as a humanitarian gesture.

But he later warned that Uruguay was "never going to be the jailor for the United States" — and that he would only accept the men if they could "live free in our country, like any citizen." Mujica is reported to have resisted American pressure to restrict the movement of the ex-detainees, rejecting a proposal that they be barred them from leaving Uruguay for a period of two years.

When asked about officials' efforts to limit ex-detainee travel, a US State Department representative referred VICE News to a published press briefing, in which a spokesperson refused to provide details of transfer negotiations — stating only that Washington had received "a range of assurances" from Uruguay.

According to a confidential cable released by Wikileaks, American officials approached Uruguay as early as 2006, to discuss the possibility of resettling Cuban and Haitian migrants being housed at Guantanamo. But the Uruguayans gave "a uniformly negative reaction" to the idea.

The US administration has been cagey in its discussion of the transfer process — and has revealed little about pre-transfer diplomatic negotiations. As it stands, Guantanamo detainee transfers are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and ex-detainees enjoy widely different fates, depending on where they land.

Today, the six men freed from Guantanamo are beginning to sketch out their Uruguayan futures. Abd al Hadi Faraj wants to get married and open a restaurant. Mohammed Abdullah Tahamuttan hopes to get some kind of education.

Ali Hussein al Shaaban has told his lawyer that he simply dreams of going for a long, unencumbered walk through the streets of the capital city.

Lawyer Greenberg is pleased that his client ended up in Montevideo. "Look, I think it's a great location, I really do," he told VICE News, especially "considering some of the other alternatives which were under consideration in the past — like Ukraine."

136 men remain detained at Guantanamo Bay. Most have not been charged with war crimes.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart