New Life in Uruguay for Six Former Guantánamo Prisoners

19.12.14

Former Guantanamo prisoners released in Uruguay: from left to right, Ali Hussein al-Shaaban, Ahmed Adnan Ahjam and Abdelhadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj (all Syrians), Tunisian Abdul Bin Muhammad Abbas Ouerghi (aka Ourgy) and Palestinian Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan, pose for a picture after lunch at a house in Canelones department, near Montevideo on December 14, 2014 (Photo: Pablo Porciuncula, AFP/Getty Images).Good news from Uruguay, where five of the six men released from Guantánamo on December 7 and given new lives in Montevideo have been photographed out and about in the city. From left to right, in the photo, they are: Ali Hussein al-Shaaban, Ahmed Adnan Ahjam and Abdelhadi Omar Faraj (all Syrians), Tunisian Abdul Bin Muhammad Abbas Ouerghi (aka Ourgy) and Palestinian Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan, photographed by Pablo Porciuncula, after eating lunch at a house in Canelones department, near Montevideo on December 14. See more photos here.

The sixth man, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, the Syrian who became confined to a wheelchair whilst at Guantánamo, had been on a hunger strike and had challenged the US authorities in the courts, has not yet been seen publicly, but is apparently recovering from his long ordeal. His lawyer, Cori Crider of Reprieve, commented that he “had difficulty believing he would ever be released until he boarded the plane out of the US military base,” as the Guardian put it. Crider said, “You inhale the air for the first time as a free man and only then it’s real. It’s going to take some time for him to come down from his hunger strike, he’s six foot five and only weighs about 148 pounds, he’s extremely thin, in pain, emaciated and still confined to a wheelchair.”

Immediately after their arrival, the Associated Press reported that Michael Mone, Ali al-Shaaban’s Boston-based lawyer, said that, with the exception of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, “The other men are all up on their feet. They have big smiles on their faces and they are very happy to be in Uruguay after 12 plus years of incarceration.” As the AP described it, Mone was “accustomed to his client being shackled and strictly monitored during meetings in Guantánamo,” and said it was “an emotional experience to see al-Shaaban experiencing freedom for the first time in years.” The AP also reported that al-Shaaban “spoke by phone with his parents, who are in a refugee camp in a country Mone declined to identify, fleeing the turmoil of their homeland.”

Mone also said of his client, “He’s relaxed, he’s not flinching every time there’s a knock on the door or the close of a gate. He just seems so much more alive than when I used to see him in Guantánamo.”

The AP also noted that Uruguay’s defense minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro had welcomed the men to their new home, and had told a local radio station that he expected them 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 of the men, Abdelhadi Omar Faraj, released a letter, via his lawyer Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York, in which he thanked the people of Uruguay for taking them in, and added that he had “already become a fan of the country’s national soccer team,” as the AP put it.

Faraj, the AP continued, “described himself as an innocent man from a modest background who had worked as a mechanic and butcher” before he was seized after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, and, he said, sold to US forces.

“Were it not for Uruguay,” he said, “I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today. It is difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us. We cannot thank you enough for welcoming us in your land.”

A week after their arrival, at a press conference on Tuesday December 16, President Mujica made a point of showing a document from the US State Department, dated December 2, which stated that there was no information that “the men were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or its allies,” as the Miami Herald described it, adding that “[m]embers of Uruguay’s opposition had requested the release of the documents as proof that the men are not dangerous.”

“I never doubted, just by using my common sense, that they were paying for something they never did,” President Mujica also said, adding, “We considered this to be a just cause and we had to help them.”

The Miami Herald also reported that, after being released from the military hospital where they were first housed, so that their health could be checked, the men have been staying in a house in Montevideo “as guests of a major labor union,” and have been taking Spanish classes. Four of the men, the newspaper added, “were seen strolling through Uruguay’s capital last week and stopping to buy cheese and bread in their first long walk in freedom.”

On Massachusetts’ MassLive website, further details were provided by Buz Eisenberg, one of the lawyers for Mohammed Taha Mattan, the Palestinian who was nearly given a new home in Germany over four years ago.

Eisenberg said, “Mattan has been granted refugees status, from the United States of America, because he was kidnapped, held for 12 and a half years and tortured, with not one charge filed against him, which is contrary to every law.” He added, “His release should have been earlier this year, but was blocked by the secretary of defense, who had to sign certification required by congress, 30 days before a transfer, and it just sat there.”

Mattan, who is now 35 years old, was seized, with other young men, in a guesthouse in Pakistan in March 2002, and always maintained that “his travels were for the purpose of religious study.” As Eisenberg noted, “He was deemed innocent so many times,” adding, “He has finally been transferred, from  Guantánamo, to Uruguay, to rebuild his life, that was stolen from him by his kidnapping, and he is grateful to Uruguay and congress for not impeding his ability to start his new life.”

Prior to Mattan’s release, Eisenberg met with him in Guantánamo, where, he said, “his client was held for days, in isolation,” and where he never saw him unshackled. “He was apprehensive, but overjoyed to be in any place but Guantánamo, to get out of hell,” Eisenberg said of Mattan’s state of mind before his release.

Eisenberg also explained that Mattan has been associated with Jama’at al-Tablighi, a huge Islamic missionary organization, and had been such a good student in the West Bank that he had “elected to travel and do service work” with the organization “as a way of getting into university.”

“He was a victim of the process of buying bodies and offering bounties to warlords, poor people and policemen,” Eisenberg said of his capture. He has also represented other prisoners, and he explained that he became involved because he “took an oath (as a lawyer) to support and defend the US Constitution.”

Lauren Carasik, another of Mattan’s lawyers (and the director of the international human rights clinic at the Western New England University School of Law), said she had “long been concerned about the injustice of Guantánamo.” She added, “When I first spoke with Buz Eisenberg about Mattan’s case, I was struck by his compelling story and the travesty of his detention without trial for so many years. I was also aware that fear and misperception, about many of the men imprisoned at Guantánamo, had eroded the nation’s commitment to justice and fairness.”

“[T]he real test of our core democratic principles,” she also said, “is how we protect the integrity of the legal system not only in the easy cases but also in the difficult ones. So it was an easy decision to join the team of lawyers who had been working tirelessly on Mattan’s behalf.”

Speaking of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA torture program (see my article here), Eisenberg said that, while he was “not surprised” by it, “this is not who we should be.” Lauren Carasik added, “President Obama has made his position clear: we should look forwards, not backwards, on torture. But the Convention Against Torture requires nations to investigate and prosecute violations of its prohibitions and to provide redress to victims. Until we have accountability for torture, and fulfill our obligations under federal and international law, we risk repeating this ill-advised and inhumane conduct, at an incalculable cost to our moral standing in the world. Accordingly, we cannot be satisfied with the Senate’s report. Instead, the nation must: undertake a complete, impartial and unclassified investigation into our practices that should serve as the basis for reforms both within the C.I.A. and its oversight mechanisms; prosecute those who have violated the law; and provide reparations for victims” (see her article for Al-Jazeera here).

As the six men released from Guantánamo settle into their new lives in Uruguay, there are reasons to believe that they are in a place where they will be cared about. As the Guardian noted of the Uruguayan people, “The good will is evident even on the streets of Montevideo where [Cori] Crider has been the object of spontaneous clapping and congratulations from passers-by who recognize her from appearances on the local media. ‘It’s amazing,’ said Crider. ‘The good will from the government and even from people on the street is unlike anything I have encountered in my 10 years of doing this.'”

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).

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    And here are Ahmed Adnan Ahjam and Abdelhadi Omar Faraj, with Ali al-Shaaban in the background (photo by Matilde Campodonico): https://www.facebook.com/andyworthingtonUK/posts/10152997496293804?comment_id=10152997762898804&offset=0&total_comments=2

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Thanks goodness for a happier story thanks Andy

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sara SN wrote:

    Many many heartfelt thanks to you, Andy, for covering this with updates. Not just an emotional experience for the reporter but also for readers. This is the best news that’s come out in days. So grateful to you for your dedication.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Carol and Sara, and yes, it’s great – and important – to have cheerful news sometimes!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark Parker wrote:

    Wonderful. Wishing them well.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mark. Yes, Uruguay comes out of this very well – and it’s great to see a group of former prisoners who very clearly don’t look like “the worst of the worst,” as the Bush administration, and some current Republicans would have us believe. Such monstrous lies have been told in this “war on terror.”

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Claudia Cortizo wrote:

    Thanks Andy good to hear they are doing well. Our president is a good man and Uruguay is a very relaxed country

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s lovely to hear, Claudia. It sounds like a lovely place and President Mujica’s example – living so humbly – ought to shame other countries’ leaders.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, I hope we can say that the guys released to Uruguay are lucky. You can see that Uruguay is poor, but there’s nothing wrong with being poor. Anything is better than Guantanamo torture camp. Now we have some released to Afghanistan. That will be another sort of challenge.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Willy. It looks like the men in Uruguay are enjoying some of the Latin American hospitality I experienced in Mexico at Easter. I also agree about how “there’s nothing wrong with being poor.” Absolute poverty is a different matter, of course, but most of the world’s problems, it seems to me, are to do with the wealthy – with those who have more than their fair share, and who have consequently lost touch with their humanity.
    I think the men in Afghanistan will be fine, as they were nobodies in the first place – although of course one problem faced by returning prisoners is that unscrupulous parties can try to use them for propaganda purposes. Hopefully, however, there is a noticeable winding down of the US presence in general, making this less significant than it used to be.
    I wrote about the released Afghans here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2014/12/21/four-insignificant-afghan-prisoners-released-from-guantanamo/

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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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