By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has repatriated two Algerians held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than a decade, the Pentagon said on Thursday, in what the men's attorneys described as an involuntary transfer that ignored their pleas to go elsewhere.
Djamel Ameziane and Belkecem Bensayah did not want to go back to Algeria because they fear persecution there, their attorneys said.
"Hopefully this won't be a case of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire,'" Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's Security & Human Rights Program, said in a statement.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented Ameziane, said the repatriation to Algeria violated international law. Rob Kirsch, an attorney for Bensayah, described the transfer as involuntary.
"The U.S. has compounded one injustice against him with another. He deserved better from the United States," CCR attorney Wells Dixon in a statement.
The transfers reduced Guantanamo's prisoner population to 162 detainees, part of a slow-moving effort by President Barack
Obama's government to close the detention facility.
Obama promised to shut it down during his 2008 presidential campaign, citing its damage to the U.S. reputation around the world. But he has been unable to do so in his nearly five years in office, in part because of resistance from Congress.
Prior to the latest transfers, the United States has repatriated 14 detainees to Algeria, seven under President Obama and seven under former President George W. Bush's administration, a Pentagon spokesman said.
"We have received no credible or substantiated information to suggest that any of these former detainees have been targeted by extremists operating in Algeria," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale said.
Breasseale also said the United States had coordinated with Algeria's government to ensure the transfers took place with "appropriate security and humane treatment assurances."
Ian Moss, a spokesman for the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said the repatriation "was conducted in compliance with all applicable domestic laws, international obligations and policies of the United States."
The concerns extend beyond targeting by extremists in Algeria.
Kirsch said the U.S. decision would keep Bensayah from seeing his family. His wife and daughters, who live in Bosnia, will not move to Algeria.
"His wife will not take their daughters to Algeria, out of concern for her daughters. The U.S. knew this would deprive (Bensayah) of his family," Kirsch said.
Both men fled civil-war-torn Algeria in the mid-1990s and had been held at Guantanamo since 2002 but were never charged with crimes.
A GROCER AND A CHEF
Bensayah, 51, was a grocer who moved to Bosnia in the mid-1990s and married a Bosnian woman. The U.S. military accused him of being a financier and facilitator for Muslim extremists headed to Afghanistan.
Bensayah was one of six Algerians investigated by the Bosnian government on suspicion of plotting with al Qaeda to attack the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in 2001.
After being exonerated in a Bosnian police investigation, the six were turned over to U.S. authorities and sent to Guantanamo. The other five were released from Guantanamo several years ago.
The U.S. military lists his name as Bensayah Belkecem but his lawyer said it is actually Belkecem Bensayah.
Ameziane, 46, had lived for several years in Canada, where he worked as a chef, before going to Afghanistan in 2000.
A U.S. military assessment said he was part of an al Qaeda-affiliated force that fought against U.S.-led troops in late 2001, then fled into Pakistan. The group surrendered to Pakistani authorities, who turned them over to the United States.
Ameziane's lawyers said he never fought against U.S. forces and fled Afghanistan because he wanted no part of the war.
The Guantanamo prison camp was established during Bush's presidency to house foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States.
Some 15 detainees are waging a hunger strike and lawmakers have blasted the prison's cost, about $2.7 million per prisoner per year, compared with $70,000 per inmate at maximum-security federal prisons.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)