ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Two Algerians held at Guantanamo Bay prison for more than a decade have returned to their homeland, where they were interrogated by judicial authorities pending an investigation, the Algiers Court said Thursday.
Their release, the first from Guantanamo in nearly a year, followed a pledge by President Barack Obama to renew efforts to close the prison on the U.S. base in Cuba, an initiative that has been thwarted by Congress.
The men, identified as Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sadiq Ahmad Sayyab, arrived late Wednesday, the court said. The Pentagon said their release reduces the prisoner population at the U.S. base in Cuba to 164 men.
"The men underwent a preliminary investigation by judicial police and were placed in detention until they appear before a prosecutor," said the Algerian court statement. Detention without charge can last for up to 15 days.
Their treatment follows the pattern for other Algerians released from the U.S. maximum security prison of being interviewed by a judge on arrival to determine what, if any, charges they would face in a criminal court, said Farouk Ksentini, president of Algeria's official National Human Rights Commission. The process usually takes a month, he said.
Most of the previous 13 Algerian nationals repatriated from Guantanamo have not been imprisoned. One exception is Abdul Aziz Naji, who was sent back to his homeland against his will in 2010. He was later sentenced to three years in prison on a charge of past membership in an extremist group overseas and remains behind bars, according to human rights groups and his former U.S. lawyer.
Until the secret release Wednesday, no prisoner had left Guantanamo since September 2012.
Sayyab, now 37, was arrested in Pakistan along with hundreds of other foreigners following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and turned over to American authorities, who sent him to Guantanamo for interrogation. His U.S. lawyer, Buz Eisenberg, said the prisoner was a trained chef who has worked in France and Syria and had no involvement with terrorism.
Sayyab was cleared for release years earlier but stayed at Guantanamo because of congressional restrictions on transfers, which include security guarantees intended to assure that anyone released from the prison does not attack the U.S. or its allies. In recent months, Sayyab had joined a hunger strike at the prison intended to call attention to the men's indefinite detention, Eisenberg said.
"I do know that he wanted to get out of Guantanamo at all costs," said the lawyer, based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Hadjarab, 34, was sent to Guantanamo in February 2002 after being captured in Afghanistan on suspicion of being a low-level al-Qaida fighter. The U.S. has said he was eligible for release since at least 2006. He had also taken part in the continuing hunger strike at Guantanamo, and the writer John Grisham called attention to his case in a recent commentary in The New York Times.
His French lawyer Joseph Breham said he is pressing for Hajdarab to be allowed to return to France where he was raised.
"It would be logical that he live in France, his entire family lives in France," including siblings and cousins, said Breham.
There are still nearly 90 prisoners who have been cleared for release or transfer from the prisoner out of a total population of 164.
In Washington, Clifford Sloan, the U.S. government's new Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said the transfer of the two Algerians reflects the president's renewed effort to close the prison. "This is an important step, and we are moving forward," he said.
Fox reported from Miami. Associated Press reporter Aomar Ouali in Algiers and Lori Hinnant in Paris, contributed to this report.