The US has transferred six detainees from Guantánamo Bay to Uruguay, the first prisoners from the controversial facility to be sent to South America.
The transfers announced early on Sunday by the Department of Defense — four Syrian men, one Tunisian and one Palestinian — will leave 136 detainees in the military complex in Cuba, down from just under 800 in its early days, as President Barack Obama edges closer to his goal of shutting down the facility.
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“The United States is grateful to the government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility,” the DoD said. “The United States co-ordinated with the government of Uruguay to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
Guantánamo Bay has long been assailed by human rights groups over the conditions prisoners are detained in, following claims of torture and abuse, and the US policy of holding many of its inmates for years without charge in a facility originally constructed only for short-term detentions.
However, the Obama administration has struggled to convince other nations to agree to accept prisoners from the facility.
Uruguay’s outgoing leftwing president, José “Pepe” Mujica, had originally agreed to resettle the six transfers in March, a decision said at the time to be based in part on his own personal history.
Mr Mujica spent 14 years in jail in brutal conditions in the 1970s and 1980s as a leader of the Tupamaro guerrilla group, including more than a decade in solitary confinement.
However, the deal stalled ahead of Uruguay’s presidential elections, with polls showing accepting detainees was not popular among voters.
This weekend’s transfer involved the largest single group of prisoners since 2009.
One of the men, Syrian Jihad Diyab, is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the practice of force-feeding Guantánamo Bay inmates who have chosen to go on hunger strike to protest against their detention. The five other men are Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Hussain Shaabaan, Omar Mahmoud Faraj, Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy, and Mohammed Tahanmatan, according to the DoD.
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While this weekend’s transfer was delayed by several months, it is an important milestone for Mr Obama’s renewed efforts to close the facility.
Together with five low-level inmates who were moved to eastern Europe last month and two other recent transfers, it brings the total number of prisoners transferred since November to 13, after the process ground almost to a halt for much of 2014.
“We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action,” said Clifford Sloan, Mr Obama’s state department envoy on Guantánamo, who negotiated the resettlement deal in January.
“The support we are receiving from our friends and allies is critical to achieving our shared goal of closing Guantánamo.”
The Uruguay resettlement announcement comes two weeks after the abrupt resignation of US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, amid widespread speculation that his resistance to accelerating transfers from the facility had exacerbated tensions with the White House.