Four Guantanamo Detainees Sent Home in Recent Weeks

December 18, 2013

Six years after President Obama promised to shutter the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, his administration has begun again to pick up the pace on repatriating detainees.

The only problem: not all of the prisoners want to go home.

Today, Guantanamo holds nearly 160 men, nearly half of whom have been cleared for release by the U.S. government. But after an initial spurt of transfers in 2009 and 2010, efforts to send them back — and ultimately close the prison — largely petered out, hampered by political opposition, bureaucratic delays and restrictions imposed by Congress on moving detainees to U.S. soil and transferring them out of the facility.

This month, Congress lifted many restrictions on overseas transfers, which will allow the administration to more quickly winnow the population of detainees who have already been cleared for release — about half of those still in detention. In recent weeks, it has repatriated four detainees.

“We’re trying to move forward as expeditiously as possible,” said Ian Moss, adviser to the State Department’s special envoy for closing Guantanamo.

Over the weekend, the U.S. sent back two Saudi nationals. It has also repatriated four men to Algeria, two of them this month. Fearing persecution in their home country, the Algerians had fought not to return, but were sent back anyway. Their cases highlight the challenges inherent in trying to shut down a detention facility that the White House said recently “harms our standing in the world.”

The transfers “show progress, but it’s a short-term gain,” said Wells Dixon, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents Djamel Ameziane, one of the Algerians returned this month. “The bottom line is that the well being of these guys was traded away. It points to the fact that the president doesn’t have a sensible, coherent thought-out plan for how to close the prison.”

Ameziane traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 to study Islam after years of living in Europe and Canada, his lawyer said. When the war began, he fled and was picked up in Pakistan, along with Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in December 2001.

After several years in Guantanamo, Ameziane was found to pose no threat to the U.S., and in 2008 the Bush administration tried to send him back to Algeria. But he feared persecution there, and fought repatriation. He was recommended for transfer again in 2010. His attorneys were trying to secure a place for him in Luxembourg before he was returned to Algeria this month.

Belkacem Bensayah, another of the newly returned Algerians, was living with his wife and daughters in Bosnia, where he was accused of involvement in a plot to attack the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo and arrested by Bosnian police in 2001. Although he was exonerated by a criminal investigation, the Bosnians handed him over to the Americans in 2002. A review board recommended him for transfer in 2010 because it found that he poses no threat to the U.S. Bensayah has petitioned to return to Bosnia to be with his family, but he was returned instead to Algeria, despite his attorney’s objections.

Bensayah fears persecution from extremists in Algeria’s southwestern region where he was raised, said Rob Kirsch, the attorney from WilmerHale who represents him. Ameziane is concerned about repercussions from the Algerian government, Dixon said, because it has already jailed one former Guantanamo detainees who was cleared by the U.S. government.

The State Department notes in its 2012 human rights report that Algeria has been accused of human-rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture to obtain confessions, and secret, pre-trial detentions in prisons that one detainee described as “bestial.”

Last week, two U.N. officials criticized the Americans’ decision to return detainees there, given Algeria’s human-rights record.

“We are satisfied that the government of Algeria will treat them in an appropriate and humane fashion,” Moss said, adding that there had been “no credible or substantiated evidence” that the Algerian authorities had mistreated any detainees that have been sent back.

After being detained for several days upon their return, both Ameziane and Bensayah have been released under “judicial control,” according to a state media announcement on Monday. The Algerian government could still bring charges against either of them — when or whether they will make that decision wasn’t immediately clear. A spokesman at the Algerian embassy in Washington D.C. didn’t return a phone call seeking a comment.

Kirsch said he talked to his client, Bensayah, on Tuesday, and said he seemed to be in good condition and was living with relatives. Dixon confirmed Ameziane’s release on Wednesday, and remains concerned that his client could ultimately meet the same fate as Abdul Aziz Naji, another cleared detainee who was returned to Algeria in 2010, and promptly jailed.

After a brief hearing that focused on why Naji hadn’t wanted to return to Algeria, he was convicted for past membership in an extremist group and imprisoned for three years, according to his U.S. attorney, Ellen Lubell. Naji is still serving that sentence.

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