Uruguay welcomes six Guantánamo detainees, underlining focus on human rights

Former President Mujica, an ex-guerrilla who was once tortured in jail, agreed to take the prisoners earlier this year. He said he was doing it 'for humanity.'

AP/Matilde Campodonico
A horse cart passes by the military hospital in Montevideo, Uruguay, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. Six prisoners from Guantanamo Bay have been transferred to Uruguay, the US government said Sunday.

Uruguay has taken in six Guantánamo Bay detainees, making it the first country in South America to receive prisoners from the detention camp in Cuba and bolstering its image as an open and liberal nation.

The six men — four Syrians, one Tunisian, and one Palestinian — arrived in Uruguay on Sunday and were taken to a military hospital in Montevideo, the capital, for health checks. They were the largest group of inmates to leave the prison since 2009, according to the New York Times. One of the Syrian prisoners, Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab, has been on a hunger strike since early last year and filed suit against the US military over his force-feeding. The case continues.

The six men were cleared for release in 2009, but could not return to their home countries because it was deemed unsafe. And because Congress has blocked the transfer of detainees to the US, other countries have had to come forward to help President Barack Obama try to fulfill a pledge to shut the prison, which after the weekend release still has 136 prisoners, of whom around half are cleared for release.

Uruguay, a nation of 3.4 million people sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, has raised its profile in recent years by passing socially liberal laws under an atypical leader, the outgoing President José Mujica. The legislation includes the creation of a state-controlled marijuana market, and laws that legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

Mr. Mujica, a former urban guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison decades ago — often undergoing torture — agreed to take in the detainees earlier this year. Uruguayans were largely opposed to the move, but Mujica said he wanted to help President Obama end what he views as a human-rights scandal. "I'm doing this for humanity," he said prior to the prisoners' arrival. 

"We are grateful to the government of Uruguay, and President Mujica in particular, for this historic stand," Cori Crider, Mr. Diyab's lawyer, said in a statement. "Very few people can truly comprehend what the cleared men in Guantánamo suffer every day, but I believe Mr. Mujica is one of them."

A plane arrived at Guantánamo in August to collect the prisoners and take them to Uruguay, but Mujica postponed the move ahead of an election to decide his successor. Tabaré Vázquez, who was elected on Nov. 30 in a second round of voting, has said he agrees with the decision to receive the detainees.

"We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action," Cliff Sloan, who negotiates detainee transfers for the State Department, said in a statement. "And to President Mujica for his strong leadership in providing a home for individuals who cannot return to their own countries."

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