theguardian: by Uki Goni —
Six former US detainees who were never charged with a crime, were flown to Uruguay on Sunday to begin new lives as refugees
Cori Crider, Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s lawyer, speaks to the press outside of the military hospital in Montevideo.
Over the past 12 years, Ali al-Shaaban has experienced precious little human kindness. Detained in Pakistan as a suspected al-Qaida member in the months after the 9/11 terror attacks, he was transferred to the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, where he was held for more than a decade.
This week, however, the 32-year old Syrian has been the subject of a wave of affection in a country half a world away from his homeland: government officials offer him warm embraces; total strangers wave to him and offer words of encouragement.
Shaaban is one of six Guantánamo prisoners who were flown to Uruguay on Sunday to begin new lives as refugees. The six – four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian – were never charged, and were cleared for release in 2009, but the US struggled to find countries willing to receive them until the Uruguayan president, José Mujica agreed to accept them.
“We are so happy to be here,” he told the Guardian in his first public comments since arriving in Montevideo. Shaaban spoke by phone from inside the city’s military hospital, where the six men are recovering under friendly but tight guard.
“They get hugs from Uruguayan officials, friendly waves and the thumbs up from the other patients at the hospital, the Uruguayan reception team even bought bathing suits for them,” said Michael Mone, the Boston trial lawyer who secured Shaaban’s release from the US government.
Mujica has described his decision to receive the men as a “humanitarian gesture”, but the popular president – who has achieved international stature for his frugal lifestyle and progressive policies – may well have harboured more personal motives.
In his youth, 79-year-old Mujica was a member of the Tupamaros guerrilla movement, and was incarcerated under harsh conditions for 13 years – two of them in solitary confinement – by Uruguay’s military dictatorship.
“It’s a very traumatic situation, I can’t transmit how they must feel, some of us have lived through similar things,” Mujica told local television.
Despite his experience at the hands of the military, Mujica has not sought punishment for his captors and Uruguayans have twice voted in open referendums against trials for dictatorship-era crimes.
“We are very grateful to President Mujica for everything he’s done,” says Shaaban, who is very aware of the parallels between their cases. “I don’t want to let Mujica down,” said Shaaban.
One of the released men remains under medical supervision: Abu Wa’el Dhiab arrived in Montevideo in extremely frail condition after an estimated seven years protesting his detention through hunger strike.
The 43-year old Syrian – who was seized by Pakistani police in 2002 – has never been charged with any crime, and brought the first courtroom challenge the Obama administration’s force-feeding of hunger-striking Guantánamo Bay detainees
Lawyers argued that force-feedings were a method of punishment, not the medically necessary procedure the government has long claimed. When guards deemed Dhiab uncooperative, they would don body armour, forcibly remove him from his cell and strap him by the extremities and head to a medical bed. Guantánamo nurses then inserted a 110cm length of tube through his nose and into his stomach. The tube was sometimes lubricated with olive oil.
“You inhale the air for the first time as a free man and only then it’s real,” said Crider. “It’s going to take some time for him to come down from his hunger strike, he’s six foot five and only weighs about 148 pounds, he’s extremely thin, in pain, emaciated and still confined to a wheelchair.”
Crider recently obtained a court order for the release of around 11 hours of video showing Dhiab being force-fed, only to have it blocked a few days before Dhiab’s release by a government appeal. The Guardian is a party to the case.
The harsh treatment lasted up to the moment the prisoners descended from the US military plane in Montevideo early on Sunday.
The men spent their entire nine-hour flight to freedom in handcuffs, shackles, blindfolds and “ear defenders”, their lawyers said.
“When they arrived, the Uruguayans refused to let them walk off the plane in shackles, they insisted that they be allowed to take their first step on Uruguayan soil as free men,” said Mone.
Earlier this week, one of the men, Abedlhadi Omar Faraj, issued a letter of thanks to the Uruguayan people.
“Were it not for Uruguay, I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today,” said the letter. “It is difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us.”
All except Dhiab have now been released from medical care this morning to be housed at quarters provided by a local trade union, which says that they have already received several job offers for the men.
The good will is evident even on the streets of Montevideo where
Crider has been the object of spontaneous clapping and congratulations from passersby who recognise her from appearances on the local media.
“It’s amazing,” said Crider. “The good will from the government and even from people on the street is unlike anything I have encountered in my 10 years of doing this.”
For Shaaban, who had been in Guantánamo since the age of 20, release from hospital means he can finally take a promised walk with his lawyer along La Rambla, the wide coastal avenue where joggers go running each morning. “I am looking forward to living a normal life and hoping to go back to school in Uruguay,” he said.
Origional Post here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/guantanamo-prisoners-urugay-jose-mujica-happy
Additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman in New York