Hagel Said to Tell Congress 6 Guantánamo Detainees Will Be Sent to Uruguay
By CHARLIE SAVAGEJULY 16, 2014
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has secretly notified Congress that the military intends to transfer six low-level Guantánamo Bay detainees to Uruguay as early as next month, according to people with knowledge of the communication. All six have been approved for transfer for more than four years.
Mr. Hagel’s formal determination that the transfer would be in the national security interest of the United States breaks a bureaucratic paralysis over a deal that has been waiting for his approval since March, but stalled amid the political uproar over a prisoner exchange deal that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from insurgents in the Afghanistan war.
The six detainees bound for Uruguay include a Syrian man who has brought a high-profile court challenge to the Pentagon’s procedures for forcibly feeding detainees who are on a hunger strike. His transfer would most likely render that lawsuit moot, although there are several similar challenges.
“The United States is grateful to our partner, Uruguay, for this significant humanitarian gesture, and appreciates the Uruguayan government’s generous assistance as the United States continues its efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo,” said Ian Moss, a State Department spokesman. “We remain very appreciative of the assistance of our friends and allies who have stepped up not just to receive their own nationals but also those countries who have accepted detainees for resettlement.”
The group would be the largest to depart the prison at once since 2009, and the transfer would reduce the Guantánamo Bay inmate population to 143. That figure includes 72 prisoners who are recommended for transfer, and 71 who are not.
By giving lawmakers a congressionally mandated notice of at least 30 days before any transfer, Mr. Hagel signaled a return to normal order for Guantánamo prisoner releases.
In the Bergdahl deal, the Obama administration did not give notice before transferring five high-level Taliban detainees to Qatar. Some lawmakers in both parties said that was illegal. The Obama administration insisted that providing no notice in that case was lawful, citing the risk to Sergeant Bergdahl’s life posed by any delay after the deal was struck.
Before the controversy, the Senate Armed Services Committee had reached a bipartisan deal clearing the way to transfer some detainees to a prison on domestic soil, allowing the Guantánamo prison to be closed. After the Bergdahl exchange, the Republican-led House voted, largely along party lines, for a proposal to prohibit the transfer of any detainee for any purpose.
Amid the political fallout, Mr. Hagel and his top military advisers had signaled reluctance to move forward with the Uruguay deal, along with another proposal to repatriate four low-level Afghan detainees that has been awaiting his approval since February, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Of the six detainees President José Mujica of Uruguay has offered to resettle, four are Syrian, one is Palestinian and one is Tunisian. On June 26, lawyers for the six sent a letter to the administration urging it to act quickly while there was a window of opportunity, arguing that “these men should not be used as scapegoats in the current bout of U.S. partisan politics.” The administration is said to have notified Congress on July 9 that Mr. Hagel had approved the deal.
Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III, a Pentagon spokesman, said he was limited in what he could say for security reasons, but added: “Although we will not discuss certain aspects of our communications with Congress, we continue to move forward in transferring Guantánamo detainees and will continue to comply with the law in notifying Congress 30 days in advance of any transfer.”
A spokesman for Representative Howard (Buck) McKeon, Republican of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, declined to comment.
If the transfer takes place in early August, a consequence could be the dismissal, without a ruling on the merits, of a lawsuit brought by one of the men, Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab, challenging the military’s procedures for force-feeding detainees who have been on a long-term hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention without trial.
Mr. Diyab was arrested by the Pakistani police in a raid on a guesthouse in April 2002 and brought to Guantánamo in August 2002. On May 16, Judge Gladys Kessler of United States District Court for the District of Columbia barred the military from force-feeding Mr. Diyab, but she lifted the order a week later as his health deteriorated — even as she publicly rebuked the military for using procedures that she said caused unnecessary “agony.” His legal team has made a motion to depose military officials and gather documents about the details of the force-feeding practices.
The procedure involves strapping a detainee into a restraint chair and inserting a gastric tube through the nose and down the throat, through which liquid nutritional supplement is poured into the stomach. A group of news organizations, including The New York Times, has asked Judge Kessler to unseal and make public videotapes of Mr. Diyab undergoing the procedure.
Last Thursday, the day after the notice is said to have gone to Congress, the Justice Department made a sealed filing in the case. On Tuesday, Judge Kessler issued a sealed order, suggesting that the proceedings may have been paused in light of the potential for Mr. Diyab’s imminent release.
Jon Eisenberg, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Diyab, said he was representing two other detainees who are also challenging the force-feeding procedures, although those cases are much less developed.
One of those cases, which is before Judge Thomas F. Hogan of United States District Court for the District of Columbia, involves Emad Abdalla Hassan, a Yemeni man who is also on the transfer list. Mr. Eisenberg said the military has said there were five videotapes showing Mr. Hassan’s cell extractions and force-feedings.
The other case involves Mohammed Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani, a Pakistani man who is on a list of detainees recommended for prosecution but has not been charged. There are said to be seven such videotapes of Mr. Rabbani, whose case is before Judge Royce C. Lamberth of United States District Court for the District of Columbia.