Uruguay’s President Mujica Confirms Offer of New Home for Six Guantánamo Prisoners

19.5.14

Back in March, President José Mujica of Uruguay announced that he had been approached by the Obama administration regarding the resettlement of Guantánamo prisoners, cleared for release from the prison in 2009 by President Obama’s high-level Guantánamo Review Task Force, who cannot be safely repatriated, and was willing to offer new homes to five men. The BBC reported that the 78-year old president told local media, “The US president wants to solve this problem so he’s asking several countries to host them and I told him I will. They are welcome to come here.” He also told Montevideo’s El Espectador Radio that the men in question were four Syrians and a Palestinian.

Subsequently, the Global Post published an article identifying the men, after working out, from a publicly available list of the prisoners cleared for release (see my article here, for example) that there is only one Palestinian still held at Guantánamo, who has long been cleared for release, and four Syrians who have also been cleared for release.

The Palestinian is Mohammed Taha Mattan (aka Mohammed Tahamuttan, ISN 684), who, like the handful of other Palestinians held at Guantánamo and subsequently released, is essentially stateless, as he can only return with the blessing of the Israeli government, which has no intention of allowing any former Guantánamo prisoner to return home. I most recently profiled his case here, mentioning how he was not only cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009 (like 74 other men still held, including the four Syrians), but had also been cleared for release under President Bush in October 2007. I also mentioned how, sadly, he was one of three prisoners that the German government was planning to accept in 2010, but was the only one left behind in Guantánamo when, for political reasons, a decision was taken to accept just two men instead.

The Syrians are Abdelhadi Faraj (aka Abdulhadi Faraj, ISN 329), Ali Hussein al-Shaaban (ISN 327), Ahmed Adnan Ahjam (ISN 326) and Abu Wa’el Dhiab (ISN 722). The first three were captured together crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, along with another man, Maasoum Mouhammed, who was given a new home in Bulgaria in May 2010. Last year, Abdelhadi Faraj took part in the prison-wide hunger strike, and his account of that can be found here, and in February 2013 Ali Hussein al-Shaaban’s lawyer, Michael E. Mone Jr., wrote a brief article about his client’s plight for the Boston Globe. Also see here for an interview with David Marshall, the lawyer for Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, conducted in 2013 by The Talking Dog.

Of particular relevance, right now, is Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who has just had a powerful court ruling in his favor issued by the District Court in Washington D.C. The father of four, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of his deteriorating health during his 12 years in US custody, is one of four prisoners who, last summer, while being force-fed as part of the prison-wide hunger strike in Guantánamo, challenged the government’s right to force-feed them.

Because of a legal precedent relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, the judge in his case, Judge Gladys Kessler, was obliged to turn down his request, but in February the court of appeals (the D.C. Circuit Court) overturned that ruling, and on Friday Judge Kessler revisited his case after his lawyers discovered the existence of videotapes recording his force-feeding and “forcible cell extractions,” and submitted an emergency motion asking the court to preserve the videos.

In her ruling, Judge Kessler not only ordered the government to preserve the videos; she also ordered the government to suspend Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s force-feeding, and to stop the “forcible cell extractions,” at least until Wednesday, when she scheduled another hearing at which the government “should be prepared to say when it can turn over Mr. [Dhiab’s] medical records and the videotapes,” as the New York Times described it.

As I explained in my article analyzing the ruling and its significance:

Just days before the court ruling, President Mujica met President Obama in Washington D.C. and, in an interview with the Washington Post, stated that his country was still willing to take six men who cannot be safely repatriated, but added that the Obama administration needs to take action soon. “It can’t be too long,” President Mujica said. “I only have a few months of government left.”

As I also explained, “It is to be hoped that, in response to this development, President Obama will take steps to hasten Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s release” — to Uruguay, with the four other men identified in March, and another man, a Tunisian, mentioned by the Washington Post.

President Mujica’s commendable respect for human rights

So who is President Mujica and why does he care about the plight of the Guantánamo prisoners? The answer, to those who have been watching the re-emergence of socialist politics in South America in recent years, is that he can empathize with them, as a “former commander of a leftist urban guerrilla group [the Tupamaros] who spent 14 years in prison,” in the words of a recent profile of him in the Wall Street Journal.

A former agriculture minister who was elected in 2009, Mr. Mujica and his wife, Lucia Topolansky, who is a senator, “gave up on living in the presidential palace,” and instead live in a humble house that Mr. Mujica “purchased shortly after his release from prison,” as the Wall Street Journal described it, adding, “Here, he grows chrysanthemums, squash and tomatoes, while chickens strut along a gravel road.”

Speaking of his offer to rehouse six Guantánamo prisoners, Mr. Mujica told the Wall Street Journal that Uruguay “would take up to six prisoners” from Guantánamo, “as long as Washington agreed they would be free to live freely.”

“We are never going to be the jailor for the United States,” the president said. “But we are prepared to take in the people over there, and allow them to live in our country, like any citizen.”

He added, as the newspaper described it, that “he both wanted to help Mr. Obama close down the detention center and provide a new horizon for the Syrian and Palestinian men his country would resettle.” It was also noted that “[o]ffering to take detainees, like some other of Mr. Mujica’s policies, haven’t sat well with all Uruguayans, but he said he had made the decision based on humanitarian grounds.”

Responding to this, President Mujica said, “One shouldn’t always be bound by public opinion. Sometimes you have to help people open their minds and be generous. It’s possible that in the beginning they don’t understand, but they will over time.”

The Wall Street Journal also noted that Uruguay’s government “has held talks with the Obama administration, and Mr. Mujica said Uruguayan intelligence agents have met with the detainees his country would receive,” and who “would be permitted to bring their families to Uruguay.” He also called the men’s imprisonment “useless.”

Soon after the Wall Street Journal article, the Christian Science Monitor examined the plight of the cleared prisoners in Guantánamo who need a new home, speaking to Polly Rossdale of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 13 men still held at Guantánamo. Rossdale noted that there are 12 men who need to be resettled in a third country because they cannot be returned home safely.

The Christian Science Monitor also noted the significance of the decision by President Obama, in May 2009, to turn down a plan by his legal counsel Greg Craig to resettle two Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province) in northern Virginia,” which the president dropped after Republicans threatened to use it to make him appear weak on terrorism. The Christian Science Monitor incorrectly stated that “the move was stymied by the US Congress,” although the online newspaper was correct to state that lawmakers had “since blocked the transfer of detainees to the US,” although a waiver always existed that President Obama could have used to bypass Congress if he had wanted to, and last December Congress was prevailed up on to ease its restrictions on the release of prisoners.

Since the capitulation on the Uighurs, however, it has been “incredibly difficult to get a third country to accept a detainee,” as Michael Mone Jr. told the Christian Science Monitor. The online newspaper added that Mr. Mone “successfully relocated an Uzbek detainee to Ireland in 2009, but not without a prolonged fight,” and then “reached out unsuccessfully to several nations, and to human rights organizations in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.”

As he explained, “Even though countries were willing to criticize the Bush administration for the obscenity of Guantánamo, the problem was that none would stick its neck out and take a detainee when the US was not willing to do the same.”

The Christian Science Monitor also noted that regional analysts explained that  President Mujica’s offer on Guantánamo “consolidates Uruguay’s reputation as a liberal and open nation.”

Julio Burdman, a professor of international relations and geopolitics in Buenos Aires, said, “Uruguay has always tried to stand out as a liberal bastion,” citing “the century-long separation between the state and the Catholic Church; the oldest mandatory pension system in Latin America; and recent laws that legalized gay marriage and abortion.”

As the Christian Science Monitor also noted:

Uruguay also has a long tradition of offering asylum. It gave refuge to Argentines who fled political conflict there several decades ago, and in 1999 the US transferred 12 Cuban prisoners held at the naval base in Guantánamo to Uruguay. The State Department website highlights Uruguay’s role as a “consensus builder and mediator in international contexts.”

The online newspaper also remarked on President Mujica’s personal identification with the Guantánamo prisoners, noting that his 14 years in prison included “more than a decade in solitary confinement,” and citing a quote he recently gave to the Associated Press about the men in Guantánamo. “They are a human wreck; they’re physically and mentally destroyed because of what they’ve been through.”

As Michael Mone said, “I think he gets it. I think he understands.”

The meeting with President Obama

Reporting on President Mujica’s meeting with President Obama last Monday, the Buenos Aires Herald noted that the Uruguayan president said of Guantánamo that, if the US is willing “to put an end to that embarrassment, the least we can do is try and help.” He also called the prison at Guantánamo Bay “an embarrassment to humanity,” adding, “There are people who have been jailed without a process, without charges and we cannot ignore this kind of thing, even if some people won’t understand.”

President Mujica also said that President Obama told him he is “committed to closing the prison before leaving the government,” and denied claims that the US “had asked Uruguay to [make sure] that the former inmates don’t leave Uruguayan territory.” In the Uruguayan president’s analysis, his US counterpart “has the intelligence of not asking what he won’t get.”

In its recent report, the Washington Post explained that human rights activists “said they hope the offer will spur other nations to open their doors to more of the 154 prisoners remaining at Guantánamo.” Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said, “This Uruguay deal is the kind of momentum other countries need to see.”

In his interview with the Post, President Mujica said, “I always thought it was really good that Obama wanted to resolve this.” Reiterating that Guantánamo is a disgrace for the US, “which on the one hand wants to wave the flag of human rights, and assumes the right to criticize the whole world, and then has this well of shame,” he also revisited his own personal experience of prison. “I know prisons from the inside,” he said, and, as the Post added:

He recalled that his only companions during many of those years were mice, ants and spiders. At one point, he befriended a tiny frog in his cell, providing it a cup of water in which to swim. “When you have a lot of solitude, any living thing becomes a companion,” he said.

President Mujica also stated that, when the US ambassador to Uruguay asked him to accept prisoners, he “immediately accepted.” He added that he “did not bargain for anything” in exchange for offering to take the prisoners.

As the Post noted, however, “moving the prisoners is not so simple,” because, “Although the US government has approved their release, the State and Defense departments have to agree to their relocation to a new country. Among other things, they have to ensure that the receiving nation will take steps to prevent the transferred detainees from becoming a security threat.”

And on this point, of course, President Mujica’s attitude will not please some US lawmakers. As the Post noted, he “said that the prisoners will be considered normal refugees, and that his government does not intend to monitor them.”

As Mujica himself put it, “We are not the jailers of the United States government, or the United States Senate. We are offering solidarity on a question that we see as one of human rights.”

Fortunately, Andrea Prasow was able to explain that, although some countries have restricted the travel of former prisoners, others have not.

The Post also spoke to Michael Mone, who said he “was not allowed to confirm whether [Ali Hussein al-] Shaaban was part of the Uruguay deal,” but who “said Shaaban had been reading about Uruguay in an encyclopedia at the camp, and is learning Spanish.” He added, “He would be so grateful to the government and people of Uruguay” if he were to be resettled there, adding that he “has no interest in traveling anywhere” afterwards.

I hope that President Obama doesn’t pass on this excellent opportunity to secure the release of six of the 77 cleared prisoners he is still holding, whose ongoing imprisonment ought to be a source of constant shame.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, David J. Clarke wrote:

    President Mujica: the face of enlightened leadership – his is a role model the rest of the world would be best served by.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, David. So wonderful to read about how he and his wife (a senator) turned their backs on the presidential palace lifestyle, and live in the house he bought after he was freed from prison. A president as one of the people …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Joyce McCloy wrote:

    wow!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for this good news, Andy

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, it’s not much more than a compilation of various media reports, Ann. I’d been meaning to write about it for a week or so, and then the court ruling in Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s favor brought it to the fore, as he is one of the men President Mujica had offered to rehouse. It seems to me that Obama ought to put him on a plane tomorrow – with the five others – and have something to show on Friday, when, around the world, people take part in the day of action marking a year since the president’s promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantanamo.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David J. Clarke wrote:

    Unique among politicians he walks the walk and transformed cruelty into compassion in action. Truly inspiring.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Nice response, Joyce, and yes, David, his attitude and approach to politics is impressive. This is from a Vice magazine profile:

    “As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder,” he said, “they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else.”

    See: http://www.vice.com/read/president-chill-jose-pepe-mujica-uruguay-0000323-v21n5

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jahanzeb Malik wrote:

    gr8 work andy .. may God bless you.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Jahanzeb. Great to hear from you.

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