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Ex-Guantanamo detainees end protest at US embassy in Uruguay

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Four ex-Guantanamo detainees who camped outside the U.S. Embassy demanding compensation for their more than 12 years in prison ended the nearly four-week-old protest Tuesday after reaching a deal with Uruguayan officials.

The protest, which began April 23, arose from the men’s frustration with the Uruguayan government’s resettlement plan and their claims that they did not get all they were promised when they left Guantanamo.

A total of six men, four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian, were resettled in Uruguay in December, invited by then President Jose Mujica as a humanitarian gesture.

They were all housed in a four-bedroom apartment in Montevideo, a point of frustration because the men said they needed their own space and a place to receive any visiting family.

Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi, the Tunisian, said Tuesday that Uruguay’s government agreed to guarantee each man private housing for two years with the possibility to renew. He said they also would continue to receive their monthly stipend of 15,000 pesos ($566) plus health insurance and Spanish classes.

“I’m very happy,” El Ouerghi said by telephone, speaking in Arabic. “We were in a bad situation and now it will be better.”

Christian Mirza, an Egyptian-born Uruguayan appointed to mediate in the protest, said the monthly stipend would be adjusted for inflation and take into account any family members who come. He said the housing agreement was for one year with the possibility to renew. The difference in time frames couldn’t immediately be reconciled.

“Now they will start another chapter,” Mirza said. “Soon they will have their own place and be studying Spanish and preparing to work.”

Mauricio Pigola, a lawyer representing the men in Montevideo, said five of six former detainees signed the agreement. Four had staged the embassy protest.

He said the exception was Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian who for years was at the center of a legal battle at Guantanamo because of repeated hunger strikes to protest indefinite detainment. Dhiab, who in February went to neighboring Argentina to accuse the Uruguayan government of not doing enough for the men, has repeatedly criticized the resettlement.

The men were detained in Afghanistan in 2002 for alleged ties to al-Qaida. Camping in front of the embassy, they argued that America should compensate them because they were never convicted of a crime. U.S. officials repeatedly said the country had no obligation to help them because they were legally detained during war.

While the protest helped the men get more guarantees from Uruguay, they angered many Uruguayans. Many people expressed frustration that the men wanted more government help than many locals in this poor South American nation receive and yet were not willing to work.

In February, the men were offered jobs in various areas, from construction to cooking, but declined to take them.

The men have said they do want to work, but first must learn Spanish and deal with health issues related to their confinement, from anxiety to digestive problems.

Legal observers expressed concern that the protest could make it harder to resettle other Guantanamo detainees, a contention that El Ouerghi rejected.

“We were a special case that wasn’t connected to others,” he said. “Doing this protest was a good decision.”

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

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