Ex-Guantanamo detainees frustrating Uruguayans, complicating resettlement of other detainees

Andrea Sastre doesn't mince words when it comes to the four former Guantanamo detainees camping in front of the U.S. Embassy in an increasingly bitter protest. Their grievances run the gamut, from demands that America compensate them to frustration over not being able to subscribe to Netflix in their adopted home.

"As a Uruguayan, I'm annoyed at these men," said Sastre, a real estate agent. "They want a house. They want food. And they want it all to come from on high. It's a pipe dream."

The men are among six who were released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in December after nearly 13 years in detention for alleged ties to al-Qaida. Uruguay's then president, Jose Mujica, a former leftist rebel who himself spent 13 years in prison in his homeland, invited them to resettle in this South American nation.

But the men have failed to thrive in Uruguay, unhappy about their circumstances and the amount of aid the government has extended.

Their protest, which began April 23, has turned many residents against them. And as the country's welcome appears to be wearing thin, questions are growing about what the troubled experiment means for dozens of remaining detainees at the U.S.-run prison that President Barack Obama has vowed to close.

The four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian in Uruguay argue that Washington is obligated to help because it held them so long, disrupting their lives, without ever convicting them of a crime, and they say the Uruguayan government made promises it hasn't kept.

"We were told we would spend a few weeks in a hotel and then they would give us houses," former detainee Ali Husain Shaaban said in English from a campsite of tents pitched on grass next to the embassy near the Rio de la Plata. "But we have been talking for five months and they haven't given us anything."

The embassy has rebuffed their demands to meet with the U.S. ambassador. There is little chance the U.S. would give them financial help, as federal courts have thrown out similar claims by other former detainees. A local lawyer for the men says they are considering filing lawsuits but have not done so.

Uruguay provides the men with housing and a monthly stipend of 15,000 pesos, about $600, which is more than what 40 percent of full-time Uruguayan workers earn each month, according to official estimates.

A local union involved in their resettlement says the men have declined several offers to work in construction, cooking and other manual labor jobs.

The men say they want to work but suffer from lingering health issues related to their detainment, such as depression, anxiety and digestive problems. They also say they first need to learn Spanish, though by their own admission they are not formally studying the language.

"It's become very clear that these former prisoners don't like to work," said a recent editorial in newspaper La Prensa, which has sharply criticized Mujica's decision to invite them. "Today the country has an unnecessary problem that didn't originate here."

Hundreds of men have been released from Guantanamo since it opened in 2002. Some who are unable to return to their home countries for various reasons have been resettled in countries such as Estonia, Oman, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Slovakia and Afghanistan.

The men in Uruguay are the only released detainees living in Latin America.

The very public nature of the trouble with Uruguay's resettlement effort has some activists worried that it might discourage countries from accepting former detainees and that U.S. lawmakers wary of resettlements will further restrict the process.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry asserting that the release of the six men to Uruguay was "inconsistent" with U.S. laws because the local government had not sufficiently restricted their movement.

"Uruguay has not taken steps to mitigate the risk that these detainees pose to the United States, including the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo," he wrote.

Uruguay is known for progressive laws, such as the legalization of marijuana and universal health care, and many citizens initially were proud to help people they saw as victims of unjust imprisonment. However, the smiles, photo ops and colorful declarations about bonding over a love for soccer have turned to frustration and finger-pointing.

The latest dustup began when the men were asked to sign an agreement stipulating their free housing would expire after next February and that, going forward, they would pay taxes on their stipends.

Palestinian Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan signed but the other five balked. Last week, Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa declared that if the men don't sign, they'll lose their financial help.

The men, who range in age from early 30s to 50, say the money is not enough to live on their own, much less bring relatives or start a family. They also complain that their financial situation doesn't allow them to get credit cards, which would enable them to get Netflix subscriptions to watch movies in their native Arabic.

Christian Mirza, an Egyptian-born Uruguayan appointed by the government to mediate, said the men are discussing the amount of the stipend, while also pushing for longer housing guarantees and more help to bring family.

"This is logical and normal if you take into account that they arrived in a country they only knew by name," he said.

Nightly newscasts feature the latest on the situation. While some Uruguayans continue to support them, an increasingly common theme is that the men should not be this country's problem.

"The Americans always have a cold war going and now they have brought a simmering war to us," said Graciano Terra, who lives near the embassy.

Even current President Tabare Vazquez, who has declared Uruguay will not take in any more Guantanamo detainees, has suggested the United States should help.

U.S. officials have rejected that idea. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last week there was no obligation to compensate the men because their detainment in Afghanistan in 2002 came during war.

"We remain grateful to the Uruguayan government for the humanitarian gesture of resettling these six individuals," said Ian Moss, who works on detainee transfers at the State Department. "We continue to work together to reach our mutual goal of making this resettlement a long-term success."


Associated Press writer Leonardo Haberkorn reported this story in Montevideo and Peter Prengaman reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.