Six men held at Guantanamo Bay were transferred to Uruguay, the largest single group of detainees to be moved from the military prison in Cuba, the Pentagon said Sunday.
The transfer, nearly a year in the making, marks the first time that Guantanamo inmates have been resettled in South America.
The president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, said he rejected a requirement that the men would have to stay in his country for two years, and called the Guantanamo prison “a kidnapping nest.”
The detainees all had been at Guantanamo Bay since 2002 and were considered low-level, although one of them, Jihad Diyab of Syria, had gained some notoriety for undertaking hunger strikes that prompted a force-feeding and subsequent lawsuit by him and others to stop it.
The latest move brings to 13 the number of detainees who have left Guantanamo since November after a six-month hiatus in which no one was released from a facility that President Obama has repeatedly vowed to close.
Clifford Sloan, the State Department’s special envoy for closing the military-run compound, called this weekend’s transfers “a major milestone in our efforts to close the facility.”
Even so, 136 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay, 67 of whom have been approved for transfer.
“This is a decent-size transfer of prisoners, but when you’re looking in the broader context, this is part of a trickle of people out of Gitmo,” said Seth G. Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp.
What makes transfers out of Guantanamo difficult is that it takes time to find countries that will accept the prisoners, even when they have been cleared for release. “That’s the challenge. All of these fighters who were captured,” Jones said. “Who wants them?”
The Obama administration, though saying it is working hard to transfer eligible inmates from Guantanamo Bay, also faces opposition from members of Congress. Some lawmakers have criticized efforts to resettle the inmates as refugees in other countries, and others have lingering concerns that those transferred would engage in terrorism.
“I’ve been opposed to this notion that we’re going to farm out Gitmo to places,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“What we have found in the past is it doesn’t work very well,” Rogers told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I don’t think that surprises anybody. So I argue that maybe we ought to rethink what we’re doing here.”
The six men resettled in Uruguay had been approved for transfer after a comprehensive review in 2009, the Defense Department said. The transfer to Uruguay had been in the works since early this year but was delayed amid shifting political and security considerations in Uruguay and the U.S.
Besides Diyab, the detainees who were transferred included three other Syrians: Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Hussain Shaabaan and Omar Mahmoud Faraj. The two others were identified as Abdul bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy of Tunisia and Mohammed Tahanmatan, a Palestinian.
According to legal requirements, the secretary of Defense must inform Congress of the intent to transfer any inmates.
“The United States is grateful to the government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” the Defense Department said in announcing the transfer.
When the prisoners arrived in Uruguay early Sunday, five were taken to a military hospital and a sixth who was in more serious condition was admitted to Maciel Hospital in Montevideo, the capital.
Mujica said the men will be free to leave Uruguay any time.
“To me, refuge is among the most noble institutions that humanity can boast,” Mujica, en route to Ecuador for a meeting, told TV reporters. “There will always be someone criticizing you for it.”
Mujica said the Guantanamo base “isn’t a jail. It’s a kidnapping nest because a jail assumes it is subject to some sort of rule of law, with the presence of a judge with a judicial point of view. And there is none of that there.”
In an open letter to Obama dated Friday, Mujica said Uruguay was offering asylum as part of the country’s humanitarian tradition.
“We have offered our hospitality to these human beings suffering an atrocious kidnapping in Guantanamo. Our motive of course is humanitarian,” Mujica wrote.
Cori Crider, a lawyer for one of the six detainees, thanked Mujica, a former political prisoner himself, “for this historic action.... Very few people can comprehend what the freed men of Guantanamo suffered every day, but I think Mr. Mujica is one of them.”
Special correspondent Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.