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Why Uruguay took six Guantanamo detainees but isn't considering more

Uruguay prides itself on being a beacon of tolerance and stability in the region. But recent protests by ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees could put future placements at risk.

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Freed Guantanamo detainees Ali Husain Shaaban and Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi pray during their protest outside the US embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay, last week.

Matilde Campodonico/AP

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On a riverfront promenade in sleepy Montevideo, Abu Wa'el Dhiab crouches next to a baby carriage and smiles. His friend Ali Husein Shaaban snaps pictures with a new smartphone while the baby’s mother works against the language barrier to try and cheerfully chat with the two Syrians.

It’s a stark contrast to just a few months ago when these men were inmates at the world’s highest security prison at Guantanamo Bay. 

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In 2014, Uruguay agreed to take in six newly-released Guantanamo Bay prisoners, the first South American country to do so. 

Despite the list of accusations that trail these former detainees – from suicide bomb training to fighting at Tora Bora – this small, poor nation decided to open its doors to them.

Uruguay prides itself on being a beacon of tolerance and stability in the frequently turbulent region. It's something that has informed efforts ranging from neighbors trying to reach out to the ex-detainees to the government offering housing, stipends, and possibly welcoming the families of the detainees in the coming months.

But the move has proved more complicated than all sides had hoped. The men have camped out in front of the US embassy to protest Washington’s refusal to provide them financial support. Uruguayans, while supportive, are growing frustrated with the men accepting aid but declining recent job offers.

Now, as the US tries to follow through on President Obama's vow to close Guantanamo, it may have more difficulty finding countries like Uruguay to take the remaining inmates. Ongoing protests in Montevideo over what four of the former prisoners see as a lack of US assistance during their reintegration could complicate efforts to place the remaining 122 detainees still held at Guantanamo. And they could have a lasting impact on whether or not Uruguay agrees to take in more ex-detainees in the future.

Former President José Mujica saw taking the prisoners, despite the political cost, “as the right thing to do,” says Mark Jones, director of the Political Science department at Rice University. However, the controversy “is definitely going to make it harder” for other countries in the region that may have been considering accepting ex-detainees in the future. 

'They've fit in'

The men have pitched three tents on a small strip of land in front of the US embassy here, where they have been protesting since April 23.

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The transition out of prison has been challenging because of the language barrier and cultural differences. They also say they need more financial support to get their own housing and move on with their lives.

“The US government detained us wrongfully for 13 years and now they should provide us with the means to live as normal human beings…this is the least they could do,” the men say in a public statement outlining their complaints.

Last year former President Mujica, himself once a guerrilla leader who fought the country’s 1973-85 military dictatorship and spent 13 years in jail, offered the ex-prisoners asylum. He called Guantanamo a “human disgrace.”

In October, before the men arrived, 58 percent of Uruguayans polled said they thought it was a bad idea to take in the detainees. But Mujica chose to offer them a home anyway, and despite the misgivings from the public, the men have been given a warm welcome.

Since December, they have lived in a four-bedroom colonial style house six blocks up the hill from where they’re protesting today. A local union loaned it to them as part of a resettlement package from the Uruguayan government. 

Neighbors on the sleepy residential street have taken it all in stride, but the men’s arrival in December was a surprise. 

Cristina Vairo was startled by a call from her son late last year. He had seen on the news that the ex-detainees had moved into the house next door to her.

Standing at the entrance of her home on a recent day, the men smiled and waved as they filed out of the neighboring tall, carved wooden doorway that is usually left ajar.

"They've fit into the neighborhood...don't bother at all," says Ms. Vairo, a retired dentist.

Vairo sometimes shares cakes with the men and has been introduced to their mothers and other relatives in Skype chats. “They could be my sons,” she says. "I hope they will be happy and if they want to stay, they stay, and if they want to go, they go."

'No obligation'?

The former detainees while away the days in their tents, sitting on nearby park benches, and praying. 

The US says it doesn’t owe the men anything. “These individuals were lawfully detained under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, as informed by the laws of war. The United States has no obligation to provide compensation for their lawful detention,” says a State Department official, who asked not to be named.

Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a scathing letter to Secretary of State John Kerry this month saying Uruguay’s failure to control the men’s activities and movement “poses a potential risk to the safety and security of our Embassy and its employees.”

“That’s nonsense,” says Christian Mirza, the liaison between Uruguay’s government and the men he calls refugees.

The son of Egyptian Christian immigrants who came to the country when he was six years old says that the men just need time to adjust and heal.

“They are people just like us, normal people, with their problems, with their dreams and hopes too, but suffering the heavy burden of being imprisoned and tortured physically and psychologically,” Mr. Mirza says.

It’s hoped that reuniting them with their families will help to ease the transition. The Red Cross plans to bring their relatives to Uruguay soon. Like the ex-Guantanamo detainees, the families will be given a year of support, extended for a second year based on need, Mirza says. However, the country has no plans to accept more refugees from Guantanamo, he says. 

Public frustration

US officials do worry the protests could make it even more difficult to find host countries for those cleared for release but still held in Guantanamo. "It's certainly not helpful," says the State Department official.

So far, 55 countries have taken some of the 649 released detainees from Guantanamo, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. There are 122 prisoners remaining.

The ex-detainees have frustrated some here with their protests. The men – four Syrians, a Tunisian, and a Palestinian – receive a stipend of 15,000 pesos ($600) a month, housing, medical care, Spanish classes, and other support as part of an aid plan run by SEDHU, a group of religious organizations dedicated to the protection and integration of refugees, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

They are protesting out of “frustration and the lack of understanding over who could help them,” says their attorney Mauricio Pígola. Negotiations are under way to sign a new agreement with the Uruguayan government clarifying some of the terms and offering new assurances, but the US is not involved, Mr. Pígola says.

“Under international law, the state is responsible for refugees it takes, and Uruguay has shown a strong willingness to take care of them," he says.

News reports that the men recently turned down job offers from a local union have stoked some resentment here, though.

Even Mr. Mujica, now a senator, voiced his frustration on his weekly radio program in February, calling the former Guantanamo prisoners “middle class” and lacking the strength and work ethic of the country’s early immigrants.

“Some aren't happy with the government giving them money, housing, clothes, food,” says Gonzalo Peinado, a retiree sitting with the men in the shade on a recent afternoon. "Many Uruguayans don't have these things."

The risk, says Mr. Jones from Rice University, is that other nations in the region watching Uruguay right now may decide "it’s not worth the headache.”