In December 2014, 15 prisoners were released from Guantánamo Bay, the largest number in any one month under the Obama administration. Among them were six men – a Tunisian, a Palestinian and four Syrians – who were resettled in Uruguay as refugees. All had been held without charge or trial for over 12 years at Guantánamo, and had been cleared for release since at least 2010, but could not be released to their countries of origin due to war or other safety risks. A further 57 men remain in a similar situation at Guantánamo.
All the men are survivors of torture who need rehabilitation. Just a few months ago, some of them were being force fed their meals by nasal tube due to their participation in the ongoing hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay. One of the former prisoners still uses crutches to walk as a result of the weakness he sustained, and all need assistance to help them overcome the mental and physical strain of arbitrary detention and torture.
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Although grateful to Uruguay for its assistance, the return to “normal life” has not been easy and help to adjust has not been forthcoming. The men were given a flat to share, but were under the impression that they would eventually receive their own homes. They have been offered jobs, but travel, communication and health problems have meant that it has not always been easy to accept them.
In order to receive a small stipend and limited assistance for one year, they were asked to sign an agreement; however, it was not under the terms they had been assured of by the Uruguayan foreign minister. Feeling shortchanged by the deal they were offered and that their complaints were being ignored, on April 24, the men took their protest to the US Embassy, which they felt was responsible for their predicament. Prior to their protest, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez had also said that Washington should provide for the six former prisoners.
Four of the men set up a protest camp. One of the men had agreed to the deal with the Uruguayan authorities and the sixth was too unwell to join the protest. However, for the three and a half weeks of the protest, officials from the US Embassy did not meet them and instead said that the United States has no obligation to compensate the men, as they were “legally detained during war.”
In a prepared statement, the men said, “we are protesting in front of the embassy because the US government detained us wrongfully for 13 years and now they should provide us with the means to live as normal human beings. They can’t just throw the mistakes on others; they should help us with houses and financial support. We are not asking the impossible from them: they detained us for 13 years and they should help for some years to come. We think that this is the least they could do or we can ask for.”
A series of negotiations was held, but this was between their lawyer and a representative of the Uruguayan government. By May 14, a basic agreement was reached with the Uruguayan negotiator that would see the men continue to receive a stipend of 15,000 pesos per month (approximately $560), social security, health insurance and rent paid on their own homes, as well as continuing Spanish lessons and help in job retraining. The agreement was made for one year and can be extended. Awaiting an Arabic translation of the deal that the men could read, the protest continued until they signed on May 19.
The deal is a considerable improvement on their current situation, but remains far from ideal. After 12 years in precarious limbo at Guantánamo, an agreement that can be renewed from year to year does not provide stability. Furthermore, while it provides that they can bring their families to the country and the Red Cross is reportedly currently looking into this, given the low wages they are likely to earn, even coupled with their stipend, long-anticipated family reunions seem unlikely. One of the men has not signed the agreement and is considering seeking asylum elsewhere. The former Palestinian prisoner who had agreed to the earlier terms signed this new agreement, too.
Although refusing to engage with the men directly, the United States has played a role through the media. Claims that the protest has discouraged other countries in the region from accepting Guantánamo prisoners cleared for release have not been substantiated; in September 2014, months before the transfer, both Peru and Chile ruled out accepting prisoners. Uruguay is not the only country in the region to have accepted former prisoners either: In 2012, El Salvador accepted two Chinese Uighurs who had also been held without charge or trial for a decade.
Concerns raised by Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) about the risk of releasing the men ring hollow, as they come at least six months too late, and since the men were never charged, he would have to prove the former prisoners were involved in combat or terrorism in the first place in order to accuse them of potential recidivism.
Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa’s comments that former President Jose Mujica had acted with “a lack of foresight” in accepting the men just one day before the agreement was reached demonstrates how much control the United States continues to exercise over former prisoners, even after their release.
This is not the first such protest: In 2010, in a “gesture of solidarity,” Slovakia agreed to resettle three prisoners who could not return to their countries of origin. Under the impression they would be resettled, they were sent to an immigration detention center whose conditions, they claimed, were “worse than Guantánamo.” Six months later, they went on hunger strike to draw attention to their plight and following international awareness, the situation improved. Two of those men have since returned home to their families. Slovakia agreed to resettle three further prisoners in 2013.
Guantánamo Bay is a mess the United States created and which it expects the rest of the world to clean up. Many of the remaining 122 prisoners are in a situation similar to that of the men released to Uruguay. The longer they remain in limbo, the worse their physical and mental suffering and the longer-term consequences will become. The US will not accept responsibility, but turning the finger of blame on to victims whose lives it has destroyed sets the bar even lower in how far the US will go to cover up its crimes against humanity.