In the largest single prisoner transfer since President Obama promised to close the facility in 2009, the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison has "resettled" six inmates to Uruguay as "refugees," according to a statement by the Pentagon. As of early Sunday morning, these six individuals, each of whom have been held in the prison for over 12 years without trial, will be permitted to begin their lives anew as free men in South America. This marks a major milestone in the ongoing and controversial battle to close the prison many view as a scourge upon the United States' reputation.
The detainees who will be making their way to Uruguay are Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Hussain Shaabaan, Omar Mahmoud Faraj, Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy, Mohammed Tahanmatan, and Jihad Diyab. Four of the men hail from Syria, one from Palestine and one from Tunisia. They range in age from 32 to 49, which suggests that the youngest was initially imprisoned at 20 years of age. All were accused of having ties with Al Qaeda, but were never formally charged and were instead subjected to various interrogation techniques that border on torture, including alleged instances of forced cell extraction and forced feedings in attempts to end prisoner hunger strikes. One of the men being released, Syrian national Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Diyab, is part of a federal lawsuit that would require the prison to release "28 classified videotapes" evidencing prisoner mistreatment.
Though the six men were first cleared for release in 2010, they have remained in Guantanamo Bay for four long years because the United States could not find countries to accept them. Much of the delay also stems from a lack of communication between Congress and the Defense Department — though Uruguay President Jose Mujica granted permission for the transfer of the prisoners in January, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ignored the necessary paperwork for another four months, from March until July, further detaining the process. The Obama administration, which made the closure of the prison a campaign issue in 2008, has been long frustrated by lack of cooperation from the Pentagon, and in May, National Security Adviser Susan Rice required Secretary Hagel to give biweekly reports on Guantanamo Bay's status.
The decision has also been decidedly unpopular in Uruguay, where most are opposed to the idea of allowing former Gitmo prisoners from living in their society. But Mujica, who was a former prisoner of war himself, has long been a vocal critic of the facility, and told the Wall Street Journal in May that he wanted to assist President Obama in shutting Guantanamo Bay down. His decision to accept the prisoners, Mujica said, was a display of "hospitality to human beings who had suffered an atrocious kidnapping in Guantanamo. According to an Uruguayan official, the six men are "going to be free to work and go to school and live peaceful lives."
The transfer of these prisoners, and any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay has been so contentious because of the inevitable stigma that accompanies the acceptance of individuals accused of having terrorist ties. Congress expressly forbids allowing any of these detainees from ever coming to the United States, regardless of whether or not they have ever been charged with a crime. It is also nearly impossible to return many of these inmates to their homes, as many of their countries are plagued by continued war and violence. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, an estimated 9 million of the country's citizens have fled and are now living as refugees in surrounding areas, making a reunion a difficult task to accomplish.
In a statement, Cliff Sloan, the U.S. Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said, "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." Even so, President Mujica has promised that Uruguay's government will do everything in its power to return these men to their respective families.
An American official is hopeful that Uruguay's willingness to resettle and rehabilitate these prisoners may pave the way for more countries to follow suit, thereby expediting the prison's closing process. With this latest set of releases, the United States has now transferred 19 prisoners this year alone, bringing the total number of detainees remaining to an all-time low of 136. Several more prisoners are expected to be set free by the year's end. Over the last year, the dilatory nature of the closing process has sparked a number of protests both in and outside of the prison, with nearly 100 prisoners participating in a hunger strike that first began in February of last year.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis that is Guantanamo Bay, the facility also serves as a huge drain on taxpayer dollars. It is estimated that each prisoner at the prison costs Americans $3 million per year. A super max prison, on the other hand, costs "tens of thousands of dollars," according to CBS News — still expensive, but considerably less than Guantanamo Bay.
With this historical transfer, it seems that Gitmo is finally, truly on its way out, and closing day has been a long time coming.
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