Apr 24, 2015 11:06 PM

Ex-Guantanamo detainees in Uruguay protest at US Embassy

The Associated Press

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) Four freed Guantanamo Bay detainees protested in front of the U.S. Embassy on Friday night, saying they were angry about being asked to leave a Uruguayan hotel that had been housing them and demanding Washington help them financially.

Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi said he had been asked to leave the Metro hotel, a budget inn where he and some of the other five former detainees periodically stayed.

The four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian have been housed in a four-bedroom house in Uruguay's capital since the government took them in after their release in December. But "we are too many to stay in the house," said El Ouerghi, who spent much of the last few months at the hotel.

As a humanitarian gesture, the men were invited to resettle in this poor South American country of 3.3 million people by President Jose Mujica, who has since left office.

They allegedly had ties to al-Qaida and spent 12 years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But they were never charged, and the U.S. released them because officials decided they were no longer a threat.

El Ouerghi said the men wanted to speak with the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay. He said the United States should help the men financially, an argument he and a few of the other former detainees have made repeatedly.

The embassy was closed, and calls and email messages to the embassy went unanswered. A late Friday statement said requests to speak with embassy personnel should be made during business hours.

"We are really angry," said Ali Husain Shaaban, one of the Syrians. "We have not been given what we were promised."

The men said they appreciated Uruguay's hospitality but creating a life here would be impossible without more financial help. The house assigned to them is paid for by a local union overseeing much of their resettlement. The hotel tab had been being picked up by the government.

The men get $600 (15,000 pesos) a month from the government, which they must use to pay for food, clothes, cellphones and other personal items. They said this week the social agency overseeing part of their resettlement requested that they sign legal papers stipulating they would pay all their own expenses and taxes out of that money. Five of the men refused, according to the four protesting Friday night.

"I want to live here and bring my family here," said El Ouerghi, who is from Tunisia. "How am I supposed to pay for gas and water bills and food with only 15,000 pesos?"

At one point in the evening, the men got down on the ground and prayed. They did not carry signs or march, but rather sat and at times stood in front of the embassy while they talked with reporters and curious onlookers.

While the men's arrival to Uruguay was greeted by fanfare, the smiles and posing for pictures quickly turned to complaints and controversy. By their own admission, they have struggled to adjust, and on several occasions have complained about not getting enough help from Uruguay's government.

In early February, a controversy erupted when people in Uruguay learned that the men had been offered jobs but did not take them.

President Tabare Vazquez, who took office March 1, has showed less enthusiasm for resettlements than his predecessor. Vazquez has said the country will not take any more Guantanamo detainees and he has postponed the planned resettlement of a group of refugees from Syria's war.

Vazquez has said the U.S. government should help shoulder the burden of providing for the men. Earlier this month, he said that the U.N. refugee agency would soon provide homes for the men.

Asked about that Friday night, El Ouerghi said he was doubtful. "The government here says one thing and does another," he said.

By midnight, the men were still sitting in front of the embassy. They said they planned to stay the night, and a friend arrived to give them some sleeping bags.


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


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