Six prisoners who were held at Guantanamo Bay for 12 years have been transferred to Uruguay to be resettled as refugees, U.S. officials announced early Sunday.
The arrangement appears to have been held up at the desk of outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and, secondarily, by elections in Uruguay.
The six men—four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian—were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda. They were never charged with a crime and had been cleared for release since 2009, but could not be sent to their home countries out of security concerns and the inability of the U.S. to find host countries for them.
Of the six, the most notable was Abu Wael Dhiab, the 43-year-old Syrian hunger striker who filed a lawsuit in U.S. courts to stop the military from force feeding him. A Federal District Court judge ruled in October that the military must release video of Dhiab being force fed, in which he was strapped to a restraint chair, had tubes inserted through his nose and fed a liquid nutritional supplement. The Obama administration has appealed the ruling.
"Despite years of suffering, Mr. Dhiab is focused on building a positive future for himself in Uruguay," said Cori Crider, a lawyer for Dhiab from the human rights group Reprieve, who was traveling to Uruguay to meet with her client. "He looks forward to being reunited with his family and beginning his life again."
State Department envoy Cliff Sloan, who negotiates detainee transfers, thanked Uruguay's president and hinted that Mujica—once a political prisoner himself—taking the lead in South America could convince neighboring countries to do the same for the dozens of detainees who are yet to be settled.
"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," said Sloan. "The support we are receiving from our friends and allies is critical to achieving our shared goal of closing Guantanamo."
Although the deal between the U.S. and Uruguay had been finalized nearly a year ago, it could not be carried out without the signature of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who withheld his approval at the expense of accelerating an already declining relationship with the White House.
In May, months after the deal had been reached, Hagel acknowledged his reservations over authorizing the release of the detainees. "My name is going on that document. That's a big responsibility," Hagel told The New York Times. "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."
However, later that month, Hagel transferred five high-value Taliban detainees in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl—a deal that drew sharp criticism from members of Congress over its legality. In July, Hagel finally agreed to the Uruguay deal but had waited so long that it was nearing the country's elections season, so the transfer had to be postponed.
Obama has struggled to move forward on his pledge to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay since taking office. Congress blocked its closing, banned sending prisoners to the U.S. for any reason and imposed restrictions on where they could be sent abroad. After the resettlement of the six detainees on Sunday, the U.S. still holds 67 men who have been cleared for release but the U.S. has been unable to negotiate a host country for them.