MONTEVIDEO - Uruguay President Jose Mujica on Friday rebutted opposition criticism of his decision for the country to accept six Guantanamo Bay prisoners as popular opposition mounts ahead of presidential elections in three weeks time.
Leftist, blunt-talking Mujica has called the detention center used to hold terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks a "human disgrace" and accepted a request from the United States to take some inmates so it can be shut down.
But a recent poll published by the consultancy Cifra shows opposition among Uruguayans to granting the prisoners refugee status in their small South American country is growing, with 58 percent against it compared with 50 percent in April.
Opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou of the traditional center party the Partido Nacional, which has been gaining in polls, has added his voice to the chorus of criticism.
But Mujica, a 78-year-old ex-guerrilla jailed during a 1973-1985 military dictatorship, stood firm on Friday.
"What soul in this world could be so rotten not to have the courage to give a hand to defend a just cause if a barbarity is being committed?," he told a local broadcaster.
Guantanamo has been criticized by human rights groups for holding some prisoners for a decade or longer without being charged or given a trial. The center has become a symbol of the excesses of U.S. President George W. Bush's "war on terror."
The transfer had been expected in August but last month the presidency said it was unlikely to occur before the elections.
Mujica, who in office has pursued radical policies such as marijuana legalization, is constitutionally barred from running for a second term.
The candidate for his left-wing Frente Amplio bloc, Tabare Vazquez, this week backed his decision, dismissing fears the inmates could plan terrorist acts in Uruguay.
"If there was any risk of this, the United States would not release them," said Vazquez, who led the country between 2005 and 2010, pursuing a center-left agenda that combined social welfare reforms with conservative economic policies.
A first round of Uruguay's presidential poll will take place on Oct. 26. A runoff vote, if no party reaches the majority required, will be held in November.
Support for Vazquez has fallen to 43 percent from 41 percent in August, while it has inched up to 33 percent for Lacalle Pou from 32 percent, according to a poll last week by Cifra. Right-wing Colorado party is steady on 15 percent.
A separate poll by Interconsult consultancy suggests a run-off would be tight, putting Vazquez on 47 percent and Lacalle Pou on 46 percent.
U.S. President Barack Obama promised to shut the Guantanamo Bay detention facility during his first presidential election campaign, but has yet to carry out that pledge.