MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Six men who were locked away for more than 12 years on the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay spent Monday in the seclusion of a military hospital in Uruguay's capital, speaking to family by phone, getting medical check-ups and preparing for a gradual introduction to their new lives in this South American country.
All but one of the former prisoners milled about a suite of rooms behind the marble columns of the Central Hospital of the Armed Forces, said Michael Mone, a lawyer who was with them. Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a Syrian thin and pale after a prolonged hunger strike at Guantanamo, was apparently too weak to spend much time out of bed.
"The other men are all up on their feet. They have big smiles on their faces and they are very happy to be in Uruguay after 12 plus years of incarceration," said Mone, a Boston-based lawyer for one of the men, Ali Hussein al-Shaaban, also from Syria.
Mone, accustomed to his client being shackled and strictly monitored during meetings in Guantanamo, said it was an emotional experience to see al-Shaaban experiencing freedom for the first time in years. Al-Shaaban spoke by phone with his parents, who are in a refugee camp in a country Mone declined to identify, fleeing the turmoil of their homeland.
"He's relaxed, he's not flinching every time there's a knock on the door or the close of a gate," the lawyer said. "He just seems so much more alive than when I used to see him in Guantanamo."
The four Syrians, one Palestinian and a Tunisian arrived in Uruguay over the weekend as refugees, the first prisoners from the U.S. base in Cuba to be sent to South America.
Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro welcomed them to settle with a reference to the passion for soccer for which Uruguay is known. He told local radio Carve that he expects the six to find "a job, work to put bread on the table, bring the family, live in peace and sit in the stands of a stadium, becoming a fan of some soccer team."
Within days, the men are expected to move to a residential facility to study Spanish, learn about Uruguayan culture and society and gradually get used to their new home before setting off on their own, Mone said.
"As soon as Ali is ready, we talked about maybe going out and going for a walk," Mone said. "I know he's really looking forward to that, taking a long walk."
All six were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda in 2002 but were never charged. They had been cleared for release since 2009 but could not be sent home and the U.S. struggled to find countries willing to take them.
While recent polls indicated most Uruguayans opposed asylum for the men, reaction to their arrival was muted. Sen. Ope Pasquet of the opposition Colorado Party said on Twitter that he agreed with the asylum for humanitarian reasons, but he added that Congress should have been consulted.
One of the men, Abedlhadi Omar Faraj, released a letter thanking Uruguayans for accepting the group, and even said he'd already become a fan of the country's national soccer team.
The Syrian described himself as an innocent man from a modest background who had worked as a mechanic and butcher before he was captured and turned over to U.S. forces in Pakistan for ransom and then sent to Guantanamo as a suspected terrorist.
"Were it not for Uruguay, I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today," said the letter released by his attorney, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York. "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.
"We cannot thank you enough for welcoming us in your land."
Uruguayan President Jose Mujica agreed to accept the men as a humanitarian gesture and said they would be given help getting established in a country of 3.3 million people that has a total Muslim population of perhaps 300.
Uruguay already had taken in 42 Syrian civil war refugees, who arrived in October, and has said it will take about 80 more.
They are coming to what may be the only country in the Americas without an Islamic mosque, said Tamar Chaky, director of the Islamic Cultural Organization of Uruguay. He promised that the local Muslim community would welcome them.
The U.S. has now transferred 19 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year, and 136 remain, the lowest number since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002.
The U.S. now holds 67 men at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release or transfer but, like the six sent to Uruguay, can't go home because they might face persecution, a lack of security or some other reason.
This weekend's transfer was the largest group sent to the Western Hemisphere. Four Guantanamo prisoners were sent to Bermuda in 2009 and two were sent to El Salvador in 2012 but have since left.
Associated Press Leonardo Haberkorn reported this story in Montevideo and Ben Fox reported from Miami. AP writers Nedra Pickler in Washington and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.