Who Are the Six Men Freed from Guantánamo and Given New Homes in Uruguay?

8.12.14

Photos of five of the six men released to Uruguay from Guantanamo - from L to R: Ali Hussein al-Shaaban, Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Abdelhadi Faraj, Mohammed Taha Mattan and Abu Wa'el Dhiab. The photos are from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and the collage is by LeaNoticias.com.Great news regarding Guantánamo, as yesterday the Pentagon announced that six men, long cleared for release from the prison — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — have been resettled in Uruguay as refugees.

Back in March, President José Mujica of Uruguay — a former political prisoner — announced that he had been approached by the Obama administration regarding the resettlement of Guantánamo prisoners and had offered new homes to a number of men, cleared for release from the prison in 2009 by President Obama’s high-level Guantánamo Review Task Force, who could not be safely repatriated.

In May, President Mujica’s offer was confirmed, as I explained in an article entitled, “Uruguay’s President Mujica Confirms Offer of New Home for Six Guantánamo Prisoners,” but the releases were then delayed. The Obama administration ran into problems with Congress after releasing five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole US prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and, according to various reports, defense secretary Chuck Hagel dragged his heels when it came to notifying Congress of any proposed releases, as required by law. In addition President Mujica ran up against hostility from his political opponents — which was particularly difficult in an election year.

Now, however, the election is over, with victory going to Tabaré Vázquez, an ally of Mr. Mujica’s, and the delays attributed to Chuck Hagel have also been overcome. As the New York Times reported, “the deal was ready to go in March,” but “Mr. Hagel waited until July to notify Congress that he was approving” it. Then, in August, “when the United States sent a plane to Guantánamo to bring the men out, Mr. Mujica balked, preferring to avoid the media spectacle of their arrival in the middle of an election campaign to choose his successor.”

Speaking after the men’s release, Mr. Mujica “emphasised that Uruguay would not place restrictions on the mobility of the six men,” as the New York Times described it, “saying that their arrival with refugee status meant that ‘the first day they want to leave, they can go.'” The Times also noted that, “When they arrived in Uruguay early Sunday morning, five of the men were taken to a military hospital for examinations. A sixth who was described as in more fragile health was taken to a civilian facility, Hospital Maciel, according to a report the Uruguayan radio station Monte Carlo.”

Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel’s reluctance to approve prisoner releases apparently contributed to his resignation last month. As the New York Times reported:

Mr. Hagel approved a flurry of transfers in late 2013, but in 2014 the process ground to a halt as he did not move on the Uruguay deal, nor on a proposal to repatriate four low-level Afghans and make other arrangements in the pipeline.

His reluctance to sign off on these agreements contributed to a deterioration in his relations with the White House. In May, President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, sent Mr. Hagel a memo pressuring him to pick up the pace, and Mr. Hagel, in an interview, explained that he was in no hurry to approve deals.

“My name is going on that document; that’s a big responsibility,” Mr. Hagel said at the time, adding: “What I’m doing is, I am taking my time. I owe that to the American people, to ensure that any decision I make is, in my mind, responsible.”

Recently, however, there has been movement on Guantánamo that is reassuring. Fawzi al-Odah, one of the last two Kuwaitis in the prison, was sent home a month ago, then five men — four Yemenis and a Tunisian — were given new homes in Georgia and Slovakia, and then a Saudi was repatriated.

136 men are now held in Guantánamo, 67 of whom have also been approved for release. The majority are Yemenis, still held because of a reluctance throughout the US establishment to overcome their fears about the security situation in Yemen. One notable prisoner still held is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, whose ongoing imprisonment is inexplicable, and last week I set up a new campaign, We Stand With Shaker, in an effort to secure his release.

The case of Abu Wa’el Dhiab

The best-known of the six men is Abu Wa’el Dhiab (ISN 722), a Syrian approved for release in 2009, who has been on a hunger strike because of his despair at ever being released, and who, as a result, has been force-fed. A father of three children — originally four, but one child died during his long years in US custody — Mr. Dhiab is in a wheelchair because of the decline in his health during 12 years in US custody, and he has, this year, been involved in a high-profile legal challenge against the US government.

Mr. Dhiab’s case was turned down in the District Court last summer, but revived after a favourable ruling in the D.C. Circuit Court in February, and in May, as I explained in a recent article:

[District Judge Gladys Kessler, in Washington D.C.,] briefly ordered the government to stop force-feeding Mr. Dhiab. This order was swiftly rescinded, as Judge Kessler feared for his life, but she also ordered videotapes of his “forcible cell extractions” (FCEs) and his force-feeding to be made available to his lawyers, who had to travel to the Pentagon’s secure facility outside Washington D.C. to see them. After viewing them, Cori Crider, his lawyer at Reprieve, said, “While I’m not allowed to discuss the contents of these videos, I can say that I had trouble sleeping after viewing them,” and added, “I have no doubt that if President Obama forced himself to watch them, he would release my client tomorrow.”

Mr. Dhiab himself said, “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today, so they will understand why we are hunger-striking, and why the prison should be closed. If the American people stand for freedom, they should watch these tapes. If they truly believe in human rights, they need to see these tapes.”

More recently, Judge Kessler — disappointingly — upheld the authorities’ right to force-feed Mr. Dhiab, and also granted the government a delay in releasing the videotapes, but Mr. Dhiab’s case has been a profound embarrassment for the authorities, and, as the New York Times reported, although Mr. Dhiab’s release “may make most of that case moot … a dispute over whether videotapes of the procedure must be disclosed to the public is expected to continue” — and other prisoners, still held, are also queuing up to challenge their treatment and to seek the release of videotapes.

Commenting on his release, Cori Crider, a director at the legal action charity Reprieve and one of Mr. Dhiab’s lawyers, said, “We are grateful to the government of Uruguay — and President Mujica in particular — for this historic stand. Very few people can truly comprehend what the cleared men in Guantánamo suffer every day, but I believe Mr. Mujica is one of them. Like President Mujica, Mr. Dhiab spent over a dozen years as a political prisoner. Mr Dhiab was never charged, never tried. President Mujica spent two years at the bottom of a well; for most of the past two years, Mr. Dhiab has had a team of US soldiers truss him up like an animal, haul him to a restraint chair, and force-feed him through a tube in his nose. The President’s compassion has ended that torture.”

She added, “Despite years of suffering, Mr. Dhiab is focused on building a positive future for himself in Uruguay. He looks forward to being reunited with his family and beginning his life again. Let’s not forget that Mr. Dhiab and the others freed today leave behind many men just like them: cleared prisoners warehoused in Guantánamo for years. Reprieve hopes that other countries will follow the positive example set by the Uruguayan government today, and help President Obama close this shameful prison.”

The stories of the five other men

The three other Syrians — Abdelhadi Faraj (ISN 329), described by the Pentagon as Omar Mahmoud Faraj, Ali Hussein al-Shaaban (ISN 327), described as Ali Hussain Shaabaan, and Ahmed Adnan Ahjam (ISN 326) — had been living together in Kabul, and, as I explained in my article in May, “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.”

As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files in 2007, “The four men certainly matched the profiles of economic migrants, drifting from country to country in search of employment, and drawn to Afghanistan by its Arab-influenced reputation for welcoming Muslims from all around the world. They said that only seven people lived at the house (themselves, the owner, and two other Syrians), and that they all put money in to keep the place running.”

According to his account in Guantánamo, Ahmed Adnan Ahjam worked for a Saudi humanitarian aid charity, Ali Hussein al-Shaaban, who was just 19 years old when he was seized, came from a poor family in Syria and had been an ironsmith in his father’s store, and told his tribunal at Guantánamo that he went to Afghanistan because he wanted to move there to seek a new life, and Abdelhadi Faraj, who was just 20 years old when he was seized, told his tribunal at Guantánamo that he had been working at a store in Kabul, but that he planned to move on to Pakistan when a friend sent him money from Syria.

As I also explained in my article in May:

The Palestinian is Mohammed Taha Mattan (ISN 684) [described by the Pentagon as Mohammed Tahanmatan] 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 … 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 sixth man is Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy (ISN 502), aka Abdul bin Ourgy, a Tunisian, who had been an Italian resident before he traveled to Afghanistan and was captured and sent to Guantánamo. He had apparently married an Afghan woman in 2000, and was first cleared for release by a military review board under the Bush administration.

What now?

In its coverage of the release of the prisoners, the New York Times noted, “The Obama administration hopes that if it can shrink the inmate population to two digits, Congress will revoke a law that bars the transfer of detainees into the United States. It would be far cheaper for taxpayers to house the inmates on domestic soil, and the White House argues that closing Guantánamo would eliminate a propaganda symbol for terrorists to use against the country.”

As I noted in an article last week, Congress has passed legislation preventing prisoners from being moved to the US mainland for many years (in the annual National Defense Authorization Act), and recently did so again. As a result, reducing the population by making sure that all the men approved for release are actually released is a good way for President Obama to argue that keeping Guantánamo open for less than 70 men is unjustifiably expensive.

That ought to be obvious, as should Guantánamo’s damaging role as a propaganda symbol. However, the prison — and the fate of those held there — has become part of a cynical game of political football, which not only costs a fortune and inflames tensions abroad. In addition, the existence of Guantánamo also causes inestimable damage to the US’s claim that it is a nation that respects the rule of law, and after nearly 13 years that terrible situation needs to be brought to an end.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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, the full military commissions 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.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009 (out of the 532 released by President Bush), and the 95 prisoners released from February 2009 to November 2014 (by President Obama), whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Filesand for the stories of the other 390 prisoners released by President Bush, see my archive of articles based on the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (herehere and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); December 2009 — 2 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); July 2010 — 1 Algerian1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 — 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians2 Saudis2 Sudanese3 Uighurs to Slovakia; March 2014 — 1 Algerian (Ahmed Belbacha); May 2014 — 5 Afghans to Qatar (in a prisoner swap for US PoW Bowe Bergdahl); November 2014 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fawzi al-Odah); November 2014 — 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi.

11 Responses

  1. anna says...

    :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)

    And now the rest …

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, I hope the re-settlement is being done with sufficient funds and cultural sensitivity, they’ll need to learn Spanish and they’ll each need a copy of ‘The Open Veins of Latin America’ by Eduardo Galeano – hope the US doesn’t simply dump these abductees in Uruguay. It is a very poor country, but I’d rather live there than Guantanamo.

    http://www.amazon.com/Open-Veins-Latin-America-Centuries/dp/0853459916

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. It’s a very good point about the funds, as I don’t think it’s always been a priority in previous resettlements. I expect these men will be well treated in Uruguay, however, given President Mujica’s understanding of their situation. I was also reassured by what the incoming president, Tabaré Vázquez, said. He stated that “he agreed with the decision to receive the detainees after discussing the move with the United States ambassador in Montevideo, Julissa Reynoso,” as the New York Times described it. “I had some concerns, and I was able to dispel them,” Mr. Vázquez told reporters. “The assurance that the ambassador gave me was that these people are not dangerous.”

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Great response, Anna. Yes, looking forward to more releases!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    When Jan Strain shared it, she wrote:

    Latest from Andy Worthington on the Gitmo hostages (in USspeak…”detainees”) released – Palestinian, Tunisian, and Syrians sent to live as strangers in a strange land. Better Uruguay than Algeria but better yet…Send them to their families.
    My question…is Obama (and cohorts) trying to gather all the brownie points he can before tomorrow’s Torture Report is released? These men have been cleared for release for years…and that “finding a place that will take them” excuse only stretches so far (‪#‎FreeShakerAamer‬ back to England).
    But that highly redacted report? No matter how much crap one tries to spread, it will never cover the stench of war crimes

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Jan, and for your comments. The stench of war crimes indeed.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    That stench will hang heavy until we truly force accountability on those committing war crimes in our name…

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And that’s not what we’re going to get tomorrow, Jan, unfortunately, just another media circus, I suspect, which will then move on …

  9. December Newsletter | Witness Against Torture | Witness Against Torture says...

    […] We are excited to announce that there were six men released to Uruguay last weekend. After 9 months of negotiations, President José Mujica and the Obama administration agreed on that Abu Wa’el Dhiab (Syria), Ahmed Adnan Ahjam (Syria), Ali Hussein al-Shaaban (Syria), Abdelhadi Faraj (Syria), Mohammed Taha Mattan (Palestine), Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy (Tunisia) will resettle there as refugees. We will continue to keep them in our prayers and thoughts as they transition out of cells of Guantanamo into the fresh air of freedom. For more information on the release, click here. […]

  10. USA: Noch 136 Gefangene in Guantanomo « Ticker says...

    […] We are excited to announce that there were six men released to Uruguay last weekend. After 9 months of negotiations, President José Mujica and the Obama administration agreed on that Abu Wa’el Dhiab (Syria), Ahmed Adnan Ahjam (Syria), Ali Hussein al-Shaaban (Syria), Abdelhadi Faraj (Syria), Mohammed Taha Mattan (Palestine), Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy (Tunisia) will resettle there as refugees. We will continue to keep them in our prayers and thoughts as they transition out of cells of Guantanamo into the fresh air of freedom. For more information on the release, click here. […]

  11. freedetainees.org – Former Guantánamo Prisoner Asim Al-Khalaqi Dies in Kazakhstan, Four Months After Being Freed says...

    […] former prisoner who knew him, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian released in Uruguay at the start of December, told the Guardian that al-Khalaqi “died on 7 May of kidney failure, as “a consequence of his […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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