SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) The United States transferred six detainees from theGuantánamo Bay prison to Uruguay this weekend, the Defense Department announced early Sunday. It was the largest single group of inmates to depart the wartime prison in Cuba since 2009, and the first detainees to be resettled in South America.
The transfer included a Syrian man who has been on a prolonged hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention without trial, and who has brought a high-profile lawsuit to challenge the military’s procedures for force-feeding him. His release may make most of that case moot, although a dispute over whether videotapes of the
The transfer was also notable because the deal has been publicly known since it was finalized last spring. Significantly, however, delays by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in signing off on the arrangement placed it in jeopardy. Mr. Hagel’s slow pace this year in approving proposed transfers of low-level detainees contributed to larger tensions with the White House before his resignation under pressure last month.
Although President Obama vowed in 2013 to revive his efforts to close the prison, the military had transferred just one low-level detainee in the first 10 months of this year. That transfer occurred in March. But the bureaucratic logjam appears to be clearing: Since November, it has transferred 13 more. There have now been 30 transfers under Mr. Hagel’s watch as defense secretary; by comparison, only four were transferred under his predecessor, Leon Panetta, who ran the Pentagon from July 2011 to February 2013.
Still, even if the military were to transfer all the other detainees recommended for such a move, some 69 detainees would remain. They are either facing charges before a military commission or deemed unable to be tried but too dangerous to release.
The Obama administration hopes that if it can shrink the inmate population to two digits, Congress will revoke a law that bars the transfer of detainees into the United States. It would be far cheaper for taxpayers to house the inmates on domestic soil, and the White House argues that closingGuantánamo would eliminate a propaganda symbol for terrorists to use against the country. But Republican lawmakers remain hostile to that plan. They argue that housing wartime prisoners on domestic soil would increase the risk of terrorist attacks inside the United States.
Each of the six detainees had long been recommended for release if the receiving country could meet security conditions, but they remained at Guantánamo because they come from home countries with troubled security conditions. Earlier this year, Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, offered to take them in, and the deal was ready to go in March.
But Mr. Hagel waited until July to notify Congress that he was approving the deal. The following month, when the United States sent a plane to Guantánamo to bring the men out, Mr. Mujica balked, preferring to avoid the media spectacle of their arrival in the middle of an election campaign to choose his successor.
Then, Uruguay’s presidential election went into a runoff, which was held Nov. 30. During the delay, administration officials insisted that the transfers would take place eventually.
Cliff Sloan, the State Department envoy who negotiates detainee transfers, expressed gratitude to Mr. Mujica in a statement. Several other South American countries, including Brazil, Chile and Colombia, motivated by news of the Uruguay deal, had opened talks about potentially taking in some low-level detainees as well, but were watching to see what would happen.
“We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action, and to President Mujica for his strong leadership in providing a home for individuals who cannot return to their own countries,” Mr. Sloan said. “The support we are receiving from our friends and allies is critical to achieving our shared goal of closing Guantánamo.”
The motivations of previous countries that have agreed to resettle Guantánamo detainees have ranged from humanitarian impulses to a desire to trade favors with the United States, leaked diplomatic cables have shown. Mr. Mujica appears to have made his offer purely as a matter of personal principle, and an American official said the United States was not paying Uruguay for the transfer.
Mr. Mujica, a former urban guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison in Uruguay, including more than a decade in solitary confinement, expressed critical views of Guantánamo in a televised interview over the weekend, adding that it would be cowardly to not receive the detainees, “once there is a president of the United States who wants to undo a miserable injustice that they left for him.” Mr. Mujica also said that Uruguay would not place restrictions on the mobility of the six men, saying that their arrival with refugee status meant that “the first day they want to leave, they can go.”
When they arrived in Uruguay early on Sunday morning, the men were taken to a military hospital for examinations.
Tabaré Vázquez, an ally of Mr. Mujica’s and a moderate leftist who won Uruguay’s presidential election in November, has said that he agreed with the decision to receive the detainees after discussing the move with the United States ambassador in Montevideo, Julissa Reynoso.
“I had some concerns, and I was able to dispel them,” Mr. Vázquez recently told reporters. “The assurance that the ambassador gave me was that these people are not dangerous,” he said, referring to the six men.
The men included four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian. Each was recommended for release by an interagency task force in 2009. Their departure reduces Guantánamo’s inmate population to 136, of whom 67 are on the list of those approved for transfer if security conditions can be met.
One Syrian transferred on Sunday is Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab, who had been held for 12 years without a trial. He is the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the military’s procedures for dealing with hunger strikes, which include strapping detainees into a restraint chair and inserting tubes into their noses, through which liquid nutritional supplement is poured.
In October, a Federal District Court judge ruled that the military must make public videotapes of Mr. Diyab undergoing that procedure, in response to a petition by The New York Times and 15 other news organizations. The Obama administration has appealed that order, saying the release of the videos could inflame attacks against American troops abroad.
Under transfer restrictions enacted by Congress, the secretary of defense must tell lawmakers at least 30 days before any transfer that the secretary has determined it would be safe to release a detainee. Mr. Hagel approved a flurry of transfers in late 2013, but in 2014 the process ground to a halt as he did not move on the Uruguay deal, nor on a proposal to repatriate four low-level Afghans and make other arrangements in the pipeline.
His reluctance to approve these agreements contributed to a deterioration in his relations with the White House. In May, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, sent Mr. Hagel a memo pressuring him to pick up the pace, and Mr. Hagel, in an interview, explained that he was in no hurry to approve deals.
“My name is going on that document; that’s a big responsibility,” Mr. Hagel said at the time, adding: “What I’m doing is, I am taking my time. I owe that to the American people, to ensure that any decision I make is, in my mind, responsible.”
Later that month, Mr. Hagel did transfer five high-level Taliban detainees to Qatar in a prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, America’s only living prisoner of war from the conflict in Afghanistan. The deal angered lawmakers because Mr. Hagel did not follow the 30-day advance-notice law in that instance; the administration said that waiting 30 days after the deal for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release was struck would have endangered his life.
In recent months, Mr. Hagel has also approved other detainee transfers. In early November, the military carried out the repatriation of a low-level Kuwaiti, followed by the resettlement of four Yemenis and a Tunisian in Eastern Europe, and then the repatriation of a Saudi later the same month.
“The Defense Department is working diligently to transfer eligible detainees from Guantánamo,” Paul Lewis, the Pentagon envoy on transfers, said in a statement. He added, “Security is always top-of-mind prior to any decision to transfer a detainee, and each detainee is closely reviewed by six departments before he is eligible for transfer.”
But Mr. Hagel also backed off an interagency decision to repatriate four Afghans, shortly before he announced his resignation, pending the confirmation of a successor; Mr. Obama has nominated Ashton B. Carter for the job. While Mr. Hagel is now in a transitional status, the transfer process is continuing; administration officials have said that further transfers are planned in the coming weeks.