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Why Is a Former Guantánamo Prisoner on Hunger Strike in Uruguay?

Sold by Pakistan, tortured by the US and traded for Uruguayan oranges, Abu Wa’el Dhiab is still trying to get home.

Adapting to life after lengthy imprisonment and as a refugee in a strange land are challenges. Coupled with the trauma of years of torture and the stigma of Guantánamo, the challenge is colossal. Nearly two years after being released to Uruguay with five others in December 2014, Syrian refugee Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab, also known as Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 45, has faced all of these problems.

Dhiab spent more than 12 years at Guantánamo after he was sold to the US military by the Pakistani police in 2002. The US military claimed he posed a “high threat,” but no charges were ever brought against him. He was cleared for release by 2010.

He took part in the 2013 mass hunger strike and continued refusing all nourishment until his release. As a result of his ongoing hunger strike, he faced solitary confinement, beatings and force-feeding by nasal tube on a regular basis. He was so weak and underweight when he was released that he still uses crutches to walk and suffers from related illnesses. He currently has a lawsuit pending against the US government related to the brutal force-feeding methods used.

Uruguay granted refugee status to the six men as a “humanitarian gesture,” according to the country’s outgoing president at the time, José Mujica, but the illusion quickly unraveled. When the promise of homes, jobs and a stipend to cover living costs in Uruguay failed to materialize, the men camped outside the US Embassy for six weeks in protest, holding the US responsible for their situation. The US Embassy refused to engage with them or accept any responsibility, but a deal was negotiated with the Uruguayan government with improved terms.

Dhiab was unable to participate in the protest because of his health, but he supported it; he did not, however, sign the agreement with the Uruguayan government and said he would seek asylum elsewhere. He has nonetheless been given his own home and a stipend. He and the other men have struggled to learn Spanish and none yet have regular or well-paid work. Intense media scrutiny of their private lives has also made it difficult for them to integrate into the local community.

For Abu Wa’el Dhiab, the real sticking point is reunification with his wife and children, who have fled to Turkey to escape the war in Syria. Returning to Syria is not an option for them; during his detention, his wife was imprisoned incommunicado for one year in Syria allegedly for seeking help in his case from an international organization.

Even if the Uruguayan government eventually followed through on its repeated promises that Dhiab’s family would be able to join him in his new home, Dhiab would likely be unable to support his family members on his modest stipend. Unable to speak Spanish and living with disabilities, he has been unable to find sources of supplemental income. Meanwhile, the deal the men agreed to with the Uruguayan government is due to end at the end of this year.

The Uruguayan government’s stance has also deteriorated shamefully. Mujica later admitted that his gesture was in fact a trade in prisoners for Uruguayan oranges, effectively meaning that men like Dhiab have been sold twice. More recently, a government representative has stated that no deal was ever made to accept the men. Mujica described the behavior of the men sent to Uruguay as “abysmal,” clouding the fact they have been repeatedly lied to, are trapped by the poverty and isolation of their situation, and have been demonized by the media.

After allegedly disappearing, Dhiab came to international prominence again in early June. The media reported he had gone to Brazil. He was the subject of a police manhunt for several weeks and was reported to be potentially plotting to sabotage the Olympics Games. A group of senators demanded information on what the US is doing “to locate and capture Dhiab.” The focus on Dhiab’s whereabouts reveals that the US is to a large extent still involved and controls what happens to former prisoners and can manipulate the situation.

Failing to express concern for Dhiab’s physical or mental well-being, media agencies instead pursued a wild-goose chase, using Dhiab’s story as a pretext for alleging a non-existent terrorist threat to the over-securitized Olympic Games.

Eventually Dhiab appeared in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, where he presented himself at the Uruguayan Embassy in late July. He told staff there that he did not want to go back to Uruguay and wanted to be sent to Turkey or any country where he can be with his family. This request was refused.

Having entered Venezuela illegally, he was arrested the same day and held incommunicado for several weeks without access to his lawyer, pending deportation to Uruguay. He was essentially in the same situation he was held in at Guantánamo: without charge and recourse to legal assistance. The Venezuelan authorities initially refused to disclose his whereabouts; he briefly “disappeared” for real.

Upon being informed on August 19 that he was to be deported to Uruguay, Dhiab went on hunger strike in protest, insisting that he be sent instead to Turkey. Nonetheless, he was returned to Montevideo on August 30 where the authorities have again promised a family reunion. He has since resumed his hunger strike, demanding to be sent to Turkey or an Arab country where he can be with his family. On September 5, suffering from severe pain, he was admitted to a hospital. He told the local media that he has been on hunger strike for 20 days and had not taken any liquids since September 1.

He was released from hospital the following day. A video that he produced with friends shows him weak and lying on a mattress in his modest home and explains his situation first in Arabic, then in English and Spanish. In it, he explains the reasons for this hunger strike: among them, his inability to attend the upcoming marriage of his daughter in 10 days’ time. While in the hospital, Dhiab also met with the Uruguayan government’s spokesperson, who told the media that the government is trying to find him another country to go to but that it is not an easy task. Unsurprisingly, in the video, Dhiab also says he no longer trusts the Uruguayan government following all of its broken promises.

Preventing Dhiab, who is not a criminal or a prisoner, from traveling and being with his family is functioning like a form of arbitrary punishment against him. Controlling his freedom in this way may be a means of deterring him from proceeding with his US lawsuit in which the Obama administration is appealing a court order to release videos showing the cruel force-feeding techniques used on Dhiab.

Observing Dhiab’s deteriorating mental and physical health and the lack of political will to help him, Dhiab’s friend and Guantánamo activist Andrés Conteris has set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $10,000 needed to reunite him with his family in Turkey.

The US and Uruguayan authorities have grievously failed Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a refugee and torture survivor. As always, it falls to right-minded members of the public to make a real difference and right the wrongs of the powers that be. Conteris says, “Contributing $1.00 is all I ask.”

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