By David S. Cloud
9:55 PM EST, December 5, 2013
WASHINGTON — Two detainees were sent back to Algeria on Thursday after more than a decade at Guantanamo Bay, despite their lawyers' entreaties that they be sent elsewhere for their safety.
Djamel Ameziane, who had been imprisoned at the U.S. naval station in Cuba since his 2002 capture in Pakistan, and Belkecem Bensayah, who was captured in Bosnia the same year, fear that they will be targeted by militants or persecuted by Algeria's notoriously harsh security forces, their attorneys said.
Human rights groups also warned that the men could face danger in Algeria. "These men, never charged with any crime, should have been able to effectively challenge their return to a country where they believe they are at risk of further human rights violations," said Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International USA.
It's not known whether the government in Algiers plans to imprison the men. Under Algerian law, they can be held up to 12 days while a prosecutor reviews their cases and decides whether to charge them, lawyers said.
Pentagon officials said they had no evidence that militants had targeted 14 Guantanamo inmates previously sent back to Algeria — half under the Obama administration. The officials said they had commitments from the Algerian government to treat returned prisoners humanely and to look out for their safety.
"We have received no credible or substantiated information to suggest that any of these former detainees have been targeted by extremists operating in Algeria," said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman.
Transfer of the two Algerians lowered the Guantanamo population to 162 — part of Obama's long-running effort to close the unpopular prison by relocating its inmates.
Wells Dixon, an attorney who represents Ameziane, said his client "fears persecution by the Algerian security services" because he is an ethnic Berber, a minority group, and because he had sought asylum in other countries even before he was sent to Guantanamo.
Ameziane, 46, has applied for resettlement in Canada, where he has family members who are citizens, Dixon said. Canada previously denied his application for political asylum, which Dixon said led his client to seek refuge in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Dixon said the Obama administration should have transferred Ameziane to a safe country, even though few governments are willing to take Guantanamo detainees. "President Obama has given short shrift to Ameziane's concerns about his fear of persecution and shown callous disregard for his human rights," he said.
Robert C. Kirsch, Bensayah's lawyer, said U.S. officials inquired years ago about sending him to Europe so he could reunite with his wife and two daughters, who are in Bosnia. The administration has not tried again recently, he said.
Bensayah, 51, is from southern Algeria, where security is poor, raising the risk if he is returned to his home village. "His concern is that he couldn't be protected there," Kirsch said.
Given a choice, Kirsch said, his client would have stayed at Guantanamo rather than return to Algeria. He noted that the Pentagon news release about the transfer transposed Bensayeh's first and last names. "He is still just a number to them," Kirsch said.
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