The U.S. sent home to Algeria on Thursday a long-held Guantánamo captive who was cleared for return years ago but for a time sought resettlement elsewhere rather than repatriation to his civil-war stricken homeland.
Ahmed Belbacha, 44, became the first prisoner released from the Pentagon detention center this year. The U.S. never charged him with a crime across 12 years in custody, but an Algerian court convicted him of terror-related charges in 2009 and issued a 20-year sentence while he was at Guantánamo.
Still, he returned voluntarily to see his elderly parents, said his attorney, Alka Pradhan of the Washington, D.C., branch of a London-based legal defense organization, Reprieve.
“He wants to go home and spend time with his parents,” said Pradhan.
“What happens once he returns will depend on the Algerian government and any agreements between them and the United States,” she added. “But our hope is that he will be now finally be allowed to freely return to his family.”
The transfer reduced the prisoner population to 154 in an another incremental step toward President Barack Obama’s ambition of closing the prison at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
As Belbacha’s attorneys tell it, he fled to France in 1999. It was a time when Islamic extremists were trying to topple the secular government and he was facing a recall to military service and working for Sonatrach, the government oil company.
He spent two years in the United Kingdom, worked at a hotel while seeking asylum, then took time out to study in Pakistan in June 2001. At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks he was at an Algerian guesthouse in Afghanistan and, as Pradhan tells it, “he was sold for bounty while he was trying to travel back to Islamabad” in Pakistan.
His 2006 Guantánamo profile, provided to McClatchy Newspapers by the anti-secrecy Wikileaks organization, concluded Belbacha trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and joined with the Armed Islamic Group, called GIA, whose violence he supposedly fled in his native Algeria.
He had been approved for return, with security arrangements, since 2007, before Obama took office, according to his lawyers.
In November, he wrote his lawyers that he was ready to go home. He had received letters from family members describing an improved political situation in the north African nation. Also, the United States sent home some other Algerians who resisted repatriation from Guantánamo to brief investigations and then release for possible trial.
“I feel completely at ease and tranquil, thank God,” he wrote, according to the lawyer. “I think about returning the day before yesterday. I think about going back in the shortest time possible.”
The military disclosed the transfer one day after an Obama administration decision to continue holding a different detainee as a so-called “forever prisoner.”
But the board concluded letting him go could present a “significant threat to the security of the United States” because of his ties to al-Qaida and his pre-capture role as a member of Osama bin Laden’s security detail.
The panel — representing the director of National Intelligence, secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State departments as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — has now considered two of 70 scheduled reviews.
It had already ruled for release of another Yemeni and the continued detention of Rahabi. That means that, as of Thursday, Guantánamo had 45 indefinite detainees, three war crimes convicts and seven captives facing prosecution by military commission. The remaining captives are split between 76 men who could be transferred if the State Department finds countries where they could live safely and 23 possible candidates for trial.
The Pentagon’s point man on closing the prison camps, Paul Lewis, issued a statement calling the transfer “another step forward in our effort to reduce the population and close the detention facility responsibly.” He credited the work of the office of his counterpart at the State Department.
Amnesty International, one of the prison’s most long-running and most vocal critics, urged the Obama administration to pick up the pace of detainee releases.
"President Obama is running out of time on Guantánamo, and his legacy is at stake,” said Zeke Johnson, director of the U.S. branch’s Security & Human Rights Program. “Each detainee should either be fairly tried in civilian court, or be released to a country that will respect his human rights."
The transfer left two Algerians at the detention center in Cuba, both designated by the Obama administration in 2009 for possible war crimes trial at the same time as a task force once again cleared Belbacha for release.