MIAMI (AP) — An Algerian held for 12 years without charge at Guantanamo Bay has been sent back to his homeland, officials said Thursday, portraying the transfer as a step toward eventual closure of the prison on the U.S. base in Cuba.
Ahmed Bel Bacha was transferred to the custody of the Algerian government, bringing the detainee population at Guantanamo to 154, the Pentagon said.
The U.S. has repatriated 17 Guantanamo prisoners to Algeria and most were detained for questioning and eventually released. Bel Bacha must contend with the fact that he was convicted of terrorism-related offenses in absentia in 2009, while still in Guantanamo. His lawyers said he was nevertheless eager to return to his homeland.
"He has received assurances from both the U.S. and the Algerians that he will be fairly and humanely treated on his return so that's what we expect," Polly Rossdale, a member of his legal team from the British human rights group Reprieve.
Bel Bacha will have the right under Algerian law to contest his conviction and receive a new trial, said Ian Moss, a spokesman for the State Department office working to close Guantanamo.
Bel Bacha, 44, was captured in Pakistan as he fled the U.S. attack on Afghanistan and was detained as a suspected militant with links to al-Qaida. He was sent to Guantanamo in January 2002, where his lawyers say he was subjected to violent interrogations and physical abuse. He participated in at least two long-term hunger strikes at the prison.
He told interrogators that he fled Algeria amid that country's civil war in 1999 because of threats from Islamic militants. U.S. officials said he traveled to Afghanistan, with aid from radicals at London's Finsbury Park Mosque, and trained with al-Qaida, according to military documents. He has been cleared for release from Guantanamo since at least 2006.
President Barack Obama came into office vowing to close the prison on the base in southeast Cuba but Congress imposed restrictions on releases and transfers, including a ban on sending any Guantanamo prisoner to the U.S.
The president last year said he would renew efforts to close the prison and Congress in December eased the restrictions on overseas transfers were eased in December. Officials say releases are expected to increase.
"We are certainly moving forward and folks should expect to see significant progress," Moss said. "We are determined to get this done."