Nation & World

U.S. repatriates 2 Algerian prisoners who feared going home

Former Guantanamo captive Belkacem Bensayah of Algeria, in a photo taken by the U.S. military before 2008 and provided to McClatchy newspapers by WikiLeaks.
Former Guantanamo captive Belkacem Bensayah of Algeria, in a photo taken by the U.S. military before 2008 and provided to McClatchy newspapers by WikiLeaks.

The United States involuntarily repatriated two Guantánamo prisoners to Algeria on Wednesday, a move their lawyers decried as political expedience and U.S. government officials said signaled another step toward emptying the controversial prison camps in southeast Cuba.

The transfer was the first since two other men went willingly to Algeria in August. It left the captive population at the U.S. Navy base prison at 162 men, according to a Pentagon statement Thursday.

Those sent back were Djamel Ameziane, 46, and Belkacem Bensayah, 51. Both were brought to the base in early 2002 and held at the crude Camp X-Ray prison camp. In January 2010, an Obama administration task force approved their transfer “to a country that will implement appropriate security measures.”

Neither man was ever charged with a crime during a decade of detention at Guantánamo; their lawyers said each man opposed return to his homeland. Bensayah and Ameziane had, separately, fled turmoil in Algeria in the 1990s and their lawyers had been asking Western nations to offer them safe haven.

At the State Department, the special envoy for Guantánamo closure issued a statement thanking the government of Algeria.

“We are making progress on the President’s commitment to close the detention facility at Guantánamo,” said the envoy, Clifford Sloan, “and we look forward to continued progress on many fronts.”

But Robert Kirsch, Bensayah’s attorney, called the move “particularly callous.” He and Ameziane’s attorney, Wells Dixon, said separately that countries in Europe were willing to accept men released from Guantánamo and criticized the Obama administration for the return.

“The U.S. government has ruined Ameziane’s life,” Dixon said. “For 20 years he has fled violence and instability in Algeria only to be forcibly returned there by the U.S. government despite his well-documented fear of persecution.”

Dixon said this week’s transfer breached international law because Ameziane “likely faces persecution” on his return and was not given an opportunity to argue that point before an international body. “Ameziane should be free in Canada or Europe rather than in secret detention in Algeria.”

Bensayah was one of six Algerians arrested in Bosnia in 2001 by officials investigating an alleged plot to blow up the U.S. and British embassies. Bosnian officials found no basis to hold the six men; they were released to U.S. custody and swiftly sent to Guantánamo. The other five were freed from Guantánamo years ago following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Boumediene vs Bush that gave Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention through habeas corpus petitions.

“Mr. Bensayah has not lived in Algeria for more than 20 years,” said Kirsch, who had helped settle other Algerians from Guantánamo in Europe. “His parents are dead, his wife and daughters are in Europe. He has no money, no job prospects, no place to live and no access to medical services in Algeria.”

The State Department’s envoy, Sloan, did not take “a single step to address those problems,” Kirsch said. “It is very disappointing.”

Ameziane, an ethnic Berber, worked at one point as a chef in Vienna, and later also as a cook in Montreal. His application for asylum in Canada was rejected in 2000 and he moved to Afghanistan, only to be captured in a roundup of Arab men trying to flee the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Ameziane’s lawyers had sought for several years to find a country to resettle him, as a refugee. Meantime, he passed his time at Guantánamo listening to the Hunger Games trilogy on audio tape. He also read “Twilight” although “wasn’t a huge fan,” Dixon said at the time.

The United States has sent about a dozen Algerians home from Guantánamo’s prison camps over the years, including men who had earlier feared mistreatment. Many were held incommunicado up to 12 days for questioning on whether they should face trial, and then sent home.

The Pentagon’s announcement early Thursday of the transfer said that the U.S. and Algeria collaborated “to ensure these transfers took place with appropriate security and humane treatment assurances.”

“Neither detainee sustained any injuries as part of the transfer,” said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman. “Both men went compliantly.”

Separately, it was not known if either of the two men were long-term hunger strikers protesting their continuing confinement at Guantánamo.

On Monday, the prison said 15 captives were on hunger strike and so malnourished they met military medical criteria for Guantánamo forced feedings. But Tuesday, as the military was preparing to transfer the two Algerians, the prison imposed a blackout on information about the long-running hunger strike at Guantánamo by order of Marine Gen. John F. Kelly at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

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