MONTEVIDEO: Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica said Friday he has asked Washington to release Cuban prisoners held in the United States in return for taking in Guantanamo detainees, stressing negotiations were still underway.
The leftist president told reporters that a Palestinian and four Syrians were among the one-time terror suspects he had agreed to host in his country.
It remains unclear when the detainees will arrive in Uruguay.
Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi stressed that the five prisoners did not present a danger to the public.
The men were not tried, are not terrorists and did not participate in “bloodshed,” Bonomi told Universal radio.
On Thursday, Mujica said his government had agreed to receive detainees from the US military prison as a human rights matter.
But on Friday, the Uruguayan leader said negotiations for the transfer were “far from concluded” — and that he had a request of his own.
“We are not doing this for money or for material things,” he said on his “The President Speaks” radio program.
“But we have no qualms in asking the North American government to please do what is possible to release those two or three Cuban prisoners who have been there for many years, because that is also shameful.” The Uruguayan leader did not name the Cuban prisoners but he appeared to be referring to three Cubans convicted in a 1998 spy case in Florida that has been a major thorn in US relations with Havana. Two of the original “Cuban Five” have been released after serving time, one last month and the other in 2011. The men were part of a spy ring that infiltrated the Key West Naval Air Station and Cuban exile groups in Miami.
They were arrested in September 1998 in connection with the killings two years before of four members of the “Brothers to the Rescue” Cuban exile group whose planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets.
Of the three still in US prisons, one, Gerardo Hernandez, is serving two life sentences after being convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for passing information to the Cuban government that allegedly led to the attack.
Fellow agents Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero meanwhile are serving sentences of 30 years and almost 22 years, respectively.
Speaking to reporters, Mujica insisted that Uruguay was “not doing any favors” to the United States by accepting the detainees.
Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla, said the Guantanamo detainees would be treated as “free men” in Uruguay.
A two-year prohibition against their leaving the country would be “a voluntary gesture by them to get out of this shameful situation, and not something we would impose,” he added. “We would never agree to be anyone’s jailer, nor do we support the legality of the Guantanamo prison, but we can’t ignore these people’s tremendous tragedy,” Mujica added.
“For this reason, if this comes to fruition, Uruguay would consider itself a servant, like other countries, of this cause, which is to end this shame of humanity.”
Mujica’s announcement was greeted with skepticism by the opposition, concerned about what legal conditions would prevail over the prisoners. Transfers out of Guantanamo have increased recently, the latest taking place this month when an Algerian was repatriated after spending 12 years at the prison without a trial. Some 154 inmates remain at the prison, erected at a US naval base in Cuba by former president George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks to house suspects captured by US forces and spies in counterterrorism operations around the world.
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