U.S. releases Guantanamo prisoner after 12 years

BY Sarah Sheffer  March 13, 2014 at 5:39 PM EST
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba. Photo by the National Guard.

Man stands guard in Guantanamo Bay watchtower. Photo by the National Guard.

An Algerian man held at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for 12 years without trial has been sent back to his native home, according to U.S. military officials on Thursday. The Pentagon has portrayed the move as a step toward closure of the prison base in Cuba, where 154 detainees remain.

Ahmed Bel Bacha, 44, is now in custody of the Algerian government. In 2009, he was convicted in absentia of terrorism-related charges. State Department spokesman Ian Moss said Bel Bacha has the right under Algerian law to a retrial.

The Defense Department said the transfer took place “with appropriate security and humane treatment assurances.”

According to a leaked 2006 security assessment of Bel Bacha, he was training at a militant camp in Afghanistan when the U.S. bombing campaign started in 2001. He was captured after he fled to Pakistan and was turned over to U.S. forces. Detained for suspected militant activity and links to al-Qaida, Bel Bacha was transferred to Guantanamo in 2002. He participated in two long-term hunger strikes in the prison, and his lawyers say he was subject to abuse.

Bel Bacha is the last of four Algerian detainees to be repatriated to Algeria after a 2009 executive order mandated a task force to review the men’s files. The interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force recommended the men for transfer, with unanimous consent from the six departments and agencies on the case.

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to close the controversial prison within a year of taking office, but the task proved more difficult than expected.

In December, Congress passed legislation easing restrictions for overseas transfers of detainees cleared to leave the prison. Legislators have expressed concern over releasing detainees to countries where security is lax. There is also a ban on sending any Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. prison system.