MIAMI - Two men who had been held without charge at the Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade have been sent back to their native Algeria against their will as part of a renewed effort to gradually close the prison, officials said Thursday.
Both prisoners, Djamel Saiid Ali Ameziane and Belkecem Bensayah, had resisted being returned to Algeria because of fears they might face persecution and further imprisonment, according to their U.S. lawyers, who had urged President Barack Obama's administration to send them elsewhere.
Both the 46-year-old Ameziane, who was captured in Pakistan, and Bensayah, a 51-year-old captured in Bosnia, fled Algeria during the country's civil war in the 1990s. They had been held at Guantanamo since 2002 on suspicion of having links to terrorism but neither was charged by the U.S.
Algerian state television said upon their return that the men were in custody and would appear in court there but did not say when or what charges, if any, they would face. In the past, most of the prisoners released in the North African country from Guantanamo have been questioned by a judge and then released.
Wells Dixon, a lawyer for Ameziane, said the decision to send him to Algeria showed a "callous disregard for his human rights," since he had a credible fear of persecution, a claim that U.S. officials rejected.
"Given that the U.S. government well knows that Djamel could have, like dozens of detainees before him, been resettled in a safe, alternate country, it is particularly outrageous that the U.S. would forcibly return him to a risk of harm in Algeria," said Dixon, a lawyer with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Rob Kirsch, a lawyer for Bensayah had also urged the State Department to resettle him in another country out of fear he could face further imprisonment as was the case with a Guantanamo prisoner repatriated to Algeria in July 2010.
The lawyer said he would help his client re-integrate into Algerian society and rebuild his life with a family he has not seen since 2002.
"After 12 years of detention without charge, this is a sad day for Mr. Bensayah," Kirsch said. "Certainly, he will make the best of it."
Over the years, the U.S. has repatriated 14 prisoners from Guantanamo to Algeria, including two earlier this year. Of the total, two were convicted of involvement with a foreign terrorist organization and only one remains in prison, according to the State Department.
The two releases bring the Guantanamo Bay prison population to 162. Only a handful of prisoners are currently facing charges, including five men accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Obama had vowed to close the detention center upon taking office but was thwarted by Congress, which placed restrictions on transfers and releases amid security concerns.
Obama earlier this year appointed two special envoys to work with Congress and other countries on a renewed attempt to empty the prison. Clifford Sloan, the State Department's Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said the releases to Algeria are a sign of progress.
"We appreciate the close co-operation of the government of Algeria on these transfers, as well as on the fourteen previous transfers of its nationals to Algeria from Guantanamo," Sloan said. "We are making progress on the President's commitment to close Guantanamo, and we look forward to continued progress on many fronts."
A spokesman for Sloan, Ian Moss, said that the government had evaluated the potential threat the men faced in Algeria and found no basis to prevent their repatriation. "We understand that from time to time we will receive criticism, but we are absolutely committed to moving forward with closing Guantanamo, and doing so in a responsible manner, consistent with the law, our national security interests and our longstanding humane transfer policies," he said in an email.
Associated Press writer Aomar Ouali contributed from Algiers, Algeria.