The Pentagon announced Thursday that it repatriated two long-held Algerians from the prison camps at Guantánamo — the first detainee transfer from the U.S. Navy base in nearly a year.
The men, Nabil Hadjarab, 34, and Motai Sayab, 37, were held as Detainees 238 and 288, and among the first prisoners brought to Cuba soon after the Bush administration set up the detention center in 2002. An Obama administration official called the transfer, conducted in secret Wednesday, a sign of the White House commitment to close the camps.
It was not immediately known if the men were released in their homeland on return. The Associated Press reported from Algiers that the two men “were interrogated by judicial authorities pending an investigation” and were placed in detention until they appear before a prosecutor.
Sayab’s lawyer, Buz Eisenberg, said Algerians returned from the prison camps are typically held incommunicado up to 12 days for questioning on whether they should face trial, and then sent home.
The release was also the first since President Barack Obama pledged in a May 23rd national-security speech — amid a widespread prison hunger strike — to redouble his efforts to close the detention center in southeast Cuba.
As of Thursday, the prison held 164 detainees, three of them convicted of war crimes and six others awaiting death-penalty trials. The rest remain in a variety of statuses, including at least 84 cleared for transfer in one fashion or another.
U.S. Special Envoy Cliff Sloan, recently appointed to negotiate releases from the State Department, said in a statement that Wednesday’s transfer “reflects our renewed efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo.
“President Obama’s directive to close Guantánamo is very clear,” Sloan added. “This is an important step, and we are moving forward.”
One of the repatriated Algerians, Hadjarab, had gotten some celebrity attention in recent months. The novelist John Grisham used a New York Times column Aug. 10 to campaign for the prisoner’s release as one captive in Cuba who enjoyed his books.
Hadjarab, born in Algeria but raised in France, was one of the publicly identified hunger-striking protesters whose lawyers said was systematically force-fed. The Britain-based legal activist group, Reprieve, which represents Hadjarab, created a cartoon that focused on his plight in June.
Reprieve spokesman Donald Campbell said in London that Hadjarab “agreed to being repatriated to Algeria. Of course he would ultimately like to return to France, where his family is — and we hope he will be able to do so some day. Nevertheless, he is grateful to the Algerians for accepting him.”
Eisenberg said from his law office in Northampton, Mass., that Sayab’s return was also voluntary.
“His No. 1 priority was getting out of Guantánamo,” said Eisenberg, “and he was perfectly happy going home to Algeria.”
Sayab arrived in Guantánamo on Jan. 20, 2002, two weeks after Pakistani forces handed him over to U.S. troops, according to his leaked risk assessment obtained by McClatchy Newspapers through Wikileaks.
Sayab’s lawyer said the Algerian was a hunger striker who avoided tube feedings by occasionally eating bread, fruit and yogurt and drinking a can of Ensure. He’s a single man who prior to his capture had worked as a trained chef in Syria and France.