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Guantánamo to Uruguay: an unlikely journey

Family members of missing persons hold a rally wearing mock uniforms of prisoners of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp demanding to be told the whereabouts of their missing family members, near the presidential palace in Islamabad, Pakistan.
By Leonardo Haberkorn
AP (*)
Six prisoners who have spent more than 10 years behind bars await release

MONTEVIDEO — The southern edge of South America seems an unlikely home for six men who have spent more than a decade locked up without charge at the US base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The prisoners, who are likely to be released soon, have been offered a refuge in Uruguay, where President José Mujica agreed as a humanitarian gesture to accept men that the US has decided do not pose a threat but cannot return to their homelands. Here, they will find few fellow Muslims and a country divided over their pending arrival.

US officials, who in the past have avoided disclosing the release of prisoners in advance, have not said when the men may arrive, nor even publicly confirmed that they are coming. In July, the Pentagon gave Congress a legally required notice of at least 30 days that it intended to send the men to Uruguay, suggesting the transfer may be imminent.

Mujica is a former leftist guerrilla who was jailed before and during a dictatorship that ruled the country in 1973-85. He told The Associated Press in May that the six men from Guantánamo will be free to move about once they make it to Uruguay, and he repeated his welcome in recent remarks.

“With the exception of the dictatorship, Uruguay has been a country of refuge and for us it’s a matter of principle,” the Mujica said on his weekly radio show.

He has said Uruguayan businesses have already offered to find work for the men.

Others in the country of 3.2 million people may not share the president’s enthusiasm for the new arrivals. The weekly magazine Búsqueda reported the results of a July survey that said half the country opposed offering asylum to the men, while 30 percent supported it and 20 percent had no opinion.

“Uruguay is an open country, made up of easygoing people who accept all cultures. But for a significant number, Islam has a bad image,” said Jaled Elqut, who came to Uruguay two years ago from Egypt and now leads prayer services at an Islamic cultural centre in Montevideo, the capital.

The six prisoners — four Syrians, one Palestinian and one Tunisian — have been held at Guantánamo since 2002, when the US government began using the base to detain men suspected of terrorism or links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

US President Barack Obama came into office pledging to close the detention centre, but the US Congress barred the transfer of any prisoners to US soil and added new legal requirements before they could be sent abroad.

600 prisioners released

About 600 prisoners have been released under both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, most of them sent to their home countries. But dozens of the 149 who remain cannot be sent back because they are likely to face harm or persecution at home or because the US does not consider the security situation stable enough.

Finding countries to accept men from Guantánamo has been a struggle. The US has scattered a group of ethnic Uighur prisoners from western China around the globe, to places that include El Salvador, Albania, Bermuda and the Pacific island of Palau. Some have since moved on as they seek to rebuild their lives.

The neighbouring countries of Brazil and Argentina have substantial Muslim populations. But there are only about 300 Muslims in Uruguay, said Susana Mangana, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Universidad Catolica. The capital doesn’t even have a full mosque, only the cultural centre.

Most Uruguayan Muslims can be found on the border with Brazil, with only a relative handful in the capital, where most Arabs are Christian.

“They are quiet, generally trying to stay out of politics,” Mangana said of Uruguay’s Muslims. “I imagine there won’t even be a committee to receive the prisoners from Guantánamo.”

@leohaberkorn
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