Guantánamo Lawyers Urge Obama Administration to Approve Release of Six Men to Uruguay


Lawyers for six prisoners at Guantánamo — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian, who have long been cleared for release from the prison, but are unable to return home — sent a letter to the Obama administration on Thursday calling for urgent action regarding their clients. I’m posting the full text of the letter below.

It’s now over three months since President José Mujica of Uruguay announced that he had been approached by the Obama administration regarding the resettlement of five men — later expanded to six — and was willing to offer new homes to them. I wrote about the story here, where I also noted that one of the men is Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian man, consigned to a wheelchair as a result of his suffering at Guantánamo. Dhiab is on a hunger strike and being force-fed, and has, in recent months, mounted a prominent legal challenge to his treatment, securing access for his lawyers to videotapes showing his force-feeding and violent cell extractions. The other Syrians are Abdelhadi Faraj (aka Abdulhadi Faraj), Ali Hussein al-Shaaban and Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, the Palestinian is Mohammed Taha Mattan (aka Mohammed Tahamuttan), and the Tunisian, whose identity is revealed for the first time, is Adel El-Ouerghi (aka Abdul Ourgy (ISN 502)).

All six men were cleared for release from the prison in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office in 2009, and in their letter the lawyers provided detailed explanations of how the deal has progressed since first being mooted late last year and how it appeared to be confirmed months ago, before it had first been mentioned publicly. “In February,” they wrote, “some or us were informed that, while it was not possible to ascertain precisely when transfer would occur, it was ‘a matter of weeks, not months.'”

The lawyers also asked “if there is any reasonable explanation for the prolonged delay to implement the transfer that was agreed upon months ago between the United States and Uruguay” and urged immediate action. “These men should not be used as scapegoats in the current bout of US partisan politics,” they stated, with reference to the manufactured hysteria that followed the recent exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole US prisoner of war in Afghanistan, adding, “Time is not on our side.”

The Uruguay deal, as the New York Times noted, “has been awaiting the signature of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel since March.” On May 28, Hagel stated that he would “make decisions fairly soon” about President Mujica’s offer, as Reuters described it.

Hagel “said he was taking his time in reaching a decision” about the six men, “as well as other detainees, in order to be sure that releasing them was the responsible thing to do.” En route to Alaska prior to starting a tour of Asia and Europe, Hagel said, “I’ll be making some decisions on those specific individuals here fairly soon,” He added that the US Congress “had assigned him the responsibility of notifying it of a decision to release detainees,” as Reuters put it.

“My name goes on that document. That’s a big responsibility,” he said, adding, “I have a system that I have developed, put in place, to look at every element, first of all complying with the law, risks, mitigation of risk. Does it hit the thresholds of the legalities required? Can I ensure compliance with all those requirements? There is a risk in everything … I suspect I will never get a 100-percent deal.”

As the New York Times noted, “the legal, policy and political difficulties” surrounding Guantánamo “escalated after the deal last month that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five former Taliban officials, sent to Qatar,” which “angered lawmakers in part because the administration bypassed a law requiring 30 days’ notice before transferring Guantánamo detainees” — even though the administration made a good case for not notifying Congress, as I explained here.

Last week, in response, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives added an amendment to next year’s National Defense Authorization Act to bar the transfer of any prisoners out of Guantánamo for any reason. The amendment passed by 230 votes to 184, with lawmakers mostly split along party lines, but, as the New York Times noted, it “faces an uncertain future in the Senate,” where Democrats currently have a majority, and where, last year, strenuous moves were successfully made by senior Democrats — including Sen. Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee — to ease the restrictions on releasing prisoners that had been in place for the previous two years.

The New York Times explained that, as a result of the cynical backlash to the recent prisoner exchange, they were told by officials “familiar with internal deliberations” that “Hagel and his advisers have been reluctant to proceed with transfers of even low-level prisoners.”

Their reluctance — at odds with comments made by an administration official to the Guardian three weeks ago — “would strand at least 11 low-level detainees whose transfer arrangements were cleared months ago but are awaiting Mr. Hagel’s approval and the notification to Congress,” as the New York Times reported. Officials said that, as well as the Uruguay six, the 11 also “include four Afghans the administration agreed in February to repatriate” — the first time this has been mentioned publicly, although I have been writing about it for years — and one other unidentified prisoner. Campaigners for the closure of Guantánamo will be hoping that this man is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, whose ongoing imprisonment is inexplicable.

Shaker Aamer, unfortunately, recently received some bad news from the US courts. In April, as I reported here, his lawyers asked a federal judge to order his release because he is chronically ill — an analysis based on a three-day visit with him that was undertaken in December by an independent psychiatrist, Dr. Emily A. Keram, who collected his statements here.

As the New York Times reported, however, District Judge Rosemary Collyer rejected Shaker Aamer’s request on Tuesday “in a terse one-page order.” As was also explained, “An accompanying memorandum opinion explaining her reasoning was sealed.” In addition, “The Justice Department’s filings in the case were also sealed, but Judge Collyer ordered it to file a public version of her order and its documents by July 9.”

Below is the lawyers’ letter about the Uruguay deal, sent from Main Street Legal Services, Inc. at City University of New York School of Law, where Ramzi Kassem, the lawyer for one of the six, Abdelhadi Faraj, is a law professor, and delivered to defense secretary Chuck Hagel; Paul Lewis, the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the DoD; Cliff Sloan, the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department; National Security Advisor Susan Rice; Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Stephen Pomper, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.

Guantánamo Lawyers’ Letter to the Obama Administration Calling for the Release of Six Men to Uruguay

Dear Madams/Sirs,

The signatories to this letter represent a number of prisoners held at the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba who have been approved for transfer for years and are now slated for resettlement in the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, a country that is prepared to welcome them immediately. We write to inquire about the status of that resettlement effort and to offer any assistance we can provide to expedite our clients’ transfer.

We represent the Guantánamo prisoners identified in our signature blocks, below, in connection with their habeas corpus cases presently pending in US federal court. In late-2013 and early-2014, we were independently informed by US representatives that our respective clients had been identified as candidates for resettlement in Uruguay.

As a result, many of us requested urgent calls with our clients to explain that they would be interviewed by a delegation from Uruguay. Our clients welcomed that opportunity and subsequently met with the Uruguayan delegation during its visit to Guantánamo. The Uruguayan movement then formally issued our clients invitations to resettle, which they gratefully accepted. In February, some or us were informed that, while it was not possible to ascertain precisely when transfer would occur, it was “a matter of weeks, not months.”

You can well imagine the hope these invitations engendered for our clients, and indeed for us. They were informed by the Uruguayan government delegation, as well as by the undersigned as their attorneys, that they had been formally invited to resettle in Uruguay. More importantly, after more than twelve years of internment, they would soon be leaving Guantánamo.

The principal details of the transfer arrangement were explained to us by US government representatives and, with their consent, we communicated, those specifics to our clients. They were to be transferred to Uruguay as a group so they would not feel isolated in their new home. They would receive adequate support and assistance, including proper housing, stipends, Spanish language lessons, professional training, and help finding employment.

In short, at the initiative of the United States and thanks to the combined efforts of the US Ambassador to Uruguay, Julissa Reynoso, those of Special Envoy Clifford Sloan and his team at the State Department, and the good will of the government of Uruguay and its people, these long-imprisoned men were given the promise of a new life. And, from our extensive exchanges with them, we know that our clients want nothing more than the chance to settle down and lead peaceful lives in Uruguay.

Yet, as you are aware, the long-awaited transfers to Uruguay have not taken place. In fact, to our knowledge, the Secretary of Defense has not provided Congress with the 30-day transfer notification required by statute.

This is despite the fact that our clients have all been approved for transfer by the US government’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which included the Defense Department — indeed, some had been cleared by the US military’s Administrative Review Board under the Bush Administration. It is also despite the reality that all of the other pieces have been in place for many months now: Uruguayan President José Mujica and other relevant officials in his government signed off earlier this year on the resettlement of our clients in their country; the White House and the State Department also long ago approved the transfer; and our clients have all consented.

It would be unfortunate in the extreme, to say the least, if the reaction from Congress to the recent exchange of five Guantánamo prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has chilled the Defense Department’s willingness to proceed with the resettlement of our clients in Uruguay. These men should not be used as scapegoats in the current bout of US partisan politics. There is no real reason for their continued imprisonment at Guantánamo and Uruguay has nobly stepped forward to welcome our clients in a bid to aid President Obama’s effort to shutter the prison at Guantánamo. The moment is ripe for this step to be taken towards the realization of that oft-repeated promise.

Time is not on our side. Congress is considering further restrictions on the President’s ability to transfer prisoners out of Guantánamo. Also, upcoming elections and government turnover in Uruguay this Fall make expedition all the more critical.

In light of our common interest with the US government, we write to offer any assistance we might be able to provide and to ask if there is any reasonable explanation for the prolonged delay to implement the transfer that was agreed upon months ago between the United States and Uruguay. We respectfully urge President Obama to take urgent action and the Secretary of Defense to notify Congress formally so that our clients can finally begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.

Very truly yours,

Ramzi Kassem
Main Street Legal Services, Inc.
City University of New York School of Law
Counsel for Abdelhadi Faraj (ISN 329)

Laura Carasik
Clinical Professor of Law
International Human Rights Clinic
Western New England University School of Law
Counsel for Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan (ISN 684)

Samuel C. Kauffman
Kauffman Kilberg LLC
Counsel for Abdelhadi Faraj (ISN 329)

Stewart Eisenberg
Weinberg & Garber, P.C.
Counsel for Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan (ISN 684)

Cori Crider
Counsel for Abu Wa’el Dhiab (ISN 722)

Gordon S. Woodward
Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP
Counsel for Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan (ISN 684)

Michael A. Cooper
Jessica M. Klein
Anil K. Vassanji
Sullivan & Cromwell
Counsel for Adel bin Mohammad El Ouerghi (ISN 502)

Eldon V.C. Greenberg
Garvey Schubert Barer
Counsel for Abdelhadi Faraj (ISN 329)

Jerry Cohen
Burns & Levinson LLP
Counsel for Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan (ISN 684)

David S. Marshall
Law Offices of David S. Marshall
Counsel for Ahmed Adnan Ajam (ISN 326)

Michael E. Mone, Jr.
Esdale, Barrett, Jacobs & Mone, LLP
Counsel for Ali Hussein Al Shaaban (ISN 327)

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Apologies for posting this so late, my friends. I wrote it this morning, and prepared it for publication early evening, but then I was out at a barbeque for a friend’s birthday. The rain held off fortunately …
    Please share this article if, like the lawyers – and myself – you want to see these six men given the opportunity for new lives in Uruguay and need confirmation that the Obama administration hasn’t been completely cowed by the manufactured hysteria and threats that greeted the Bowe Bergdahl/Taliban prisoner exchange.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, surely this is a promise Obama can keep. Let’s hope Uruguay is a good place for them. I wish Costa Rica could/would be another safe place for Guantanamo abductees to go to. Thanks for the update, no complaints.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Willy. Yes, I certainly hope so. Fairly urgent action is needed. There are elections forthcoming in Uruguay, as President Mujica pointed out to him – and the mid-terms in the US, which may not be good for Obama’s Senate majority, to add to his perpetual opposition in the Republican-majority House of Representatives. After November, he may be a lame duck president.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Of course Uruguay is a great place, and Mujica’s offer for this people is great. He has a lot of courage and is a great president. Not many dare to offer that, at least I know Mexican president would never so that, as we are (sadly) US’ backyard in so many ways.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Natalia, and thanks for the perspective from Mexico. President Mujica really does sound like a very decent, humble and principled man, which, of course, is extremely unusual for presidents and prime ministers. I was full of admiration for his comments about the injustice of Guantanamo and why he felt an obligation to offer to help some of the cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated:
    It’s a shame the Mexican government wouldn’t make a similar offer, but I take your point about Mexico being the US’s backyard. On my visit in April, I felt that there was a very strong, proud and distinctive Mexican identity, but I also understand that, to a large degree, both politically and economically, Mexico is dependent on, or preyed upon by the US.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Hello, Andy. Yes, you are right about all you said. And yes, we have a beautiful sense of pride about Mexico, but we have learned to accept (sadly) that we are in a horrible situation in which we can’t afford to disagree with the US fearing consequences. Already we are struggling with a lot on the matter.
    I hope Obama accepts Mujica’s offer and that other countries come forward to help this men whom we don’t forget. (Is it “whom” or “who”? sorry)

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Natalia. I hope to find the time to read more about the Mexican economy at some point, to try to understand more. My wife’s nephew (who is now, I think, half-Mexican by marriage!) tells me that he thinks there are strong socialist impulses to try and provide housing, health and education to as many people as possible (which I saw as a permanent outcome or permanent aspiration of the revolution), but that the government recognizes that it cannot provide for everybody, in part, of course, because profits are siphoned off by multinational firms (mainly American, I presume).
    As for your language question, technically it is “whom” in that context, although most English speakers would say “who.”

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Malak Saib wrote:

    Good work keep it up

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Claudia Cortizo wrote:

    Pepe does it again. He has already housed Sudanese refugees on his property. We are proud to be Uruguayans.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sandra Streifel wrote:

    These men have been OK’d for release before. I expect they have been checked out in every way possible, but the only way to guarantee against a political goof in the White House is to do absolutely nothing.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Malak, Claudia and Sandra. Claudia, I am not surprised that you are proud to be Uruguayan. Your president “Pepe” shows other leaders what they are lacking.
    And Sandra, yes, that’s a very accurate analysis, sadly. It was only the prison-wide hunger strike last year that stopped President Obama from maintaining his favored position on Guantanamo that he had undertaken since lawmakers made difficulties for him – sitting on his hands and doing nothing. And yet, every day that wretched place remains open, the absurd and horribly unjust arguments of one group of the prison’s supporters only grow stronger – that it’s too dangerous to release anyone because they may have been radicalized by their experience.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    The gift of mental cruelty that just keeps on giving. People who lack compassion should be screened at their first interviews and prevented from working in Government or running for office. From what little I’ve read President Mujica seems almost too good to be true that creature almost as illusive as a unicorn… a humble and honest political leader.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, David. I agree – we need a completely different basis for electing politicians than the one we currently have, where the only prerequisites for election are ego, ambition and the ability to schmooze. Psychopaths are good at this, rather than decent human beings. The most absurd thing about politicians, however, is that they don’t need to have any qualifications whatsoever that relate to the jobs they assume – so Cameron has no actual leadership skills, just a background in PR, Osborne has no economic ability, Gove has no experience of teaching etc.
    But look at our recent history, David. The problem is also that people want to be sheep – so Thatcher was respected for being strong (as, presumably, Hitler was in 1930s Germany), as was Tony Blair, her spiritual heir.
    Things won’t change until the general public want decent people like President Mujica, who, as you note, possesses the characteristics we should want in our leaders. He’d fit well in my idea of a functioning political system, one that works more like jury service, with qualified people working for, say, a year, on the basis of service for the good of the whole – the exact opposite of what we have to put up with: unqualified egomaniacs drunk on power and, since Thatcher at least, devastatingly impressed by anyone with a lot of money.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    Free everey body enough rubish , what is wrong with people any body and every body can became a presedent

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jamal. Great comments!

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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