Mujica stalls Gitmo transfer ‘for election’
Reports from US suggest Uruguayan president doesn’t want Guatanámo prisoner transfer to sway vote
MONTEVIDEO — Uruguay’s controversial decision to accept the transfer of prisoners from the US-run military prison at Guantanámo Bay was in doubt yesterday, after reports in the United States suggested that President José “Pepe” Mujica had blocked the move over fears it would influence the country’s forthcoming elections.
The plan to resettle six men, transferring them from the US-run prison where people are detained for offences related to terrorism to Uruguay, was initially agreed earlier this year after a meeting between Mujica and US President Barack Obama. The announcement scored widespread news coverage for the country.
However, officials in both Montevideo and Washington suggested yesterday that the request was unlikely to be carried out any time soon, with details still being “negotiated.” Some suggested the delay may even be as long as three months.
The Pentagon had given the US Congress a legally required 30-day notice in July that it intended to transfer the six long-held men for resettlement, suggesting it may have been imminent after months of delay.
But a report in the New York Times, citing unnamed “Obama administration officials” said yesterday there would be a lengthy delay. It also suggested the reason for the change of plan was more cynical. According to the newspaper, US Vice-President Joe Biden called Mujica back in July, asking him to press ahead with his plan, originally agreed back in January, to “accept the detainees,”
The Uruguayan president however, says the Times, has become concerned that it would be “politically risky” to follow through with the plans, due to the country’s upcoming presidential elections.
Next month, the country of 3.5 million people will head to the polls to vote for a new president and legislative elections. Mujica’s party, the ruling Broad Front (or Frente Amplio), has put up former president Tabaré Vázquez as its candidate for the highest office.
The vote, which polling currently suggests is a two-horse race between Vázquez, a former physician, and Luis Lacalle Pou of the right-wing National Party, or “Partido Blanco,” will take place on October 26, with a possible presidential runoff scheduled for November 30.
Yesterday, the Uruguayan government was keen to stress that “undisclosed issues” were responsible for the delay. Presidential spokesman Diego Canepa said the problems had yet to be resolved.
“I don’t think they will be resolved within the next two to three months,” Canepa said.
Mujica, despite not running for re-election due to constitutional limits on consecutive terms, has said he decided to offer to resettle the six prisoners as a humanitarian gesture but polls suggest a majority of people in Uruguay, a country with relatively few Muslims, do not support the transfer. One survey in June showed 64 percent of citizens opposed the plan.
Uruguay would be the first country in South America to accept prisoners from Guantanámo for resettlement. The US has been trying to transfer prisoners around the world as part of its long-stalled effort to close the centre but has struggled to find countries willing to accept them and is prohibited by law from sending them to the US for any reason, including imprisonment.
Guantanámo has been criticized by human rights groups, with some of its prisoners held for over a decade or longer without being charged or given a trial. Opened by then-US President George W. Bush in 2002 to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas, Guantanámo unwittingly became a symbol of the excesses of the “war on terror.”
Obama promised to shut the detention facility during his first presidential election campaign, but has yet to carry out that pledge.
The six men approved for transfer to Uruguay — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — have not been charged with a crime, and officials say they do not pose a threat.
Around 600 prisoners have been released under Obama and Bush, most of them sent to their home countries. But many of the remaining 149 cannot be sent home because they are likely to face harm or persecution at home or because the US does not consider the security situation stable enough.
Gov’t denies request
Canepa denied yesterday that Mujica had asked the US to postpone the transfer due to the elections — the spokesman told reporters that there was never a fixed date to postpone in the first place. He also denied that the US had pressured Montevideo.
“There isn’t a date that could be extended or changed,” he said.
Mujica’s last public statement on the transfer came back in May, when he suggested there wasn’t anything left to resolve on the Uruguayan side.
“We made our proposal. It’s now up to the US,” he said at the time.
Canepa told the press yesterday that he believed a mistranslation was behind the story.
“I have read the article in the New York Times, and there is only one sentence in which ‘pressure’ is mentioned. I believe that upon translating it, the press has given it too much importance,” Canepa said
“It says that Biden called ‘to pressure’ which in English can mean to ask for something, and doesn’t necessarily mean that same as presionar in Spanish,” he added. “We are still working on the whole process, so it is a lie to say we have changed the arrival date when we still didn’t have one.”
Julissa Reynoso, the US Ambassador to Uruguay, was also keen to play down the news, telling Uruguay’s El País that her government will not “impose a date for the arrival” of the detainees, but she added that it would be “ideal” for it to happen before the end of Mujica’s term as president, which finishes on March 1, 2015.
Reynoso added that it was “very inappropriate” to talk about pressure being applied, stressing the fact that Biden has the “utmost respect” for Mujica.
Reynoso is known to have discussed the transfer with Vázquez, seemingly to ensure the deal goes through when Mujica leaves office. The US understands that the agreement reached is “between one state and another,” she said.
Opposition candidates Lacalle Pou and Pedro Bordaberry, currently in third in the polls, have said publicly they are against the move.
Herald with AP, Reuters