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Why Would Uruguay Take Guantanamo Prisoners?


The news that Uruguay gave refuge to six Guantanamo detainees over the weekend raises this question - what's in it for the Uruguayans, or for their president, Jose Mujica? President Obama came to office promising to close the detention camp at Guantanamo, but he's met with much domestic opposition to letting terror suspects out and not much support abroad for taking them in. Michelle Shephard is national security correspondent for The Toronto Star. She joins us now. And first, who are the six Guantanamo detainees who are now in Uruguay?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, we know that the majority were Syrian - and there was one Palestinian - who were sent and all of them had been cleared for release, some for many, many years, but couldn't be sent back to Syria. So the Obama administration had been looking for a country to give them refuge.

SIEGEL: Why would Uruguay do it? What's in it for them?

SHEPHARD: Well, it's a good question. You could ask that sort of for any of the countries that have taken the detainees over the years. My understanding that in this transfer is that it was really a humanitarian gesture. I think there are obviously always other factors that are on the table, but the president himself had been held as a political prisoner and it was perhaps not a popular decision, domestically, for him. But after quite a long negotiation, he accepted these men.

SIEGEL: As you say, the U.S. remains in need of people to take in detainees that it wants to release from Guantanamo. The Uruguayans did Washington a favor. Should we assume that Uruguay's good deed will not go unnoticed, or has not gone unnoticed?

SHEPHARD: You know, it's hard to say. At the beginning in 2009, for the first few months it was a much easier task to find countries that would take the detainees, and dozens left. And then as you know, restrictions were placed by Congress. And over the years, frankly, the Obama administration is just not as popular worldwide as it was in those first few months. So it's become an increasingly difficult task. I think though, any time some of the detainees leave that it might help encourage other countries to do the same.

SIEGEL: I've read one account which says that Uruguay is always interested in getting a little bit of support from the U.S. to let the Argentines next-door know that they're a country to be reckoned with. That might be something in it for them, in that sense?

SHEPHARD: Absolutely. I mean, I think almost every country that has taken the detainees has had something on the table. I know I've done a lot of research on the Uyghur detainees who were transferred. There were 22 Uyghur detainees that were in Guantanamo.

SIEGEL: These are members of the Turkic minority from China who had been picked up.

SHEPHARD: That's right. And really, you know, I think the word Kafkaesque gets overused often after 9/11, but really Kafka cases, in so far as their detention, but difficult men to resettle because any country that would take them would risk angering China. That has denounced their transfers. So those deals, many which happened in the early days, were diplomatically incredibly complicated, incredibly secretive and countries such as, you know, Bermuda and Palau and Albania and Switzerland were the ones that ended up taking them.

SIEGEL: Let's take absolute worst-case here - which some would raise as an argument against releasing people from Guantanamo - which is, that someone who was picked up and suspected of being a terrorist leaves Guantanamo, goes to a third country then goes home, then turns up fighting somewhere in the world with some Islamist group.

How common is that and is it a concern that other countries actually raise?

SHEPHARD: I think it is a concern that countries raise and certainly one we've heard in the discussion in the U.S. You know, there remain 67 detainees that are cleared for release, some of them for years and years, some cleared under the Bush administration. But the majority of those men, 53 of them are from Yemen. At one point, the Obama administration had sort of an outright ban on returning them to Yemen. That's been since lifted. But still, the administration is reluctant to send them to Yemen because they don't believe the security system is in place to monitor these men. And that risk exists domestically for any time someone comes out of a prison. And compared with risk of reoffending from a criminal population, I believe Guantanamo detainees still is quite under that average.

SIEGEL: Michelle Shephard of The Toronto Star. Thanks for talking with us.

SHEPHARD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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