MIAMI — An Algerian held for 12 years without charge at Guantanamo Bay has been sent back to his homeland, officials said Thursday. They portrayed the transfer as a step toward an 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 Bay to 154, the Pentagon said.
The United States has repatriated 17 Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Algeria, where they typically spend about two weeks in custody for questioning before being released. Bel Bacha must contend with the fact that he was convicted of terrorism-related offenses in absentia in 2009, while at the prison. 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,” said 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 Bay.
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-Qaeda. He was sent in January 2002 to Guantanamo Bay, where his attorneys 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 its 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-Qaeda, according to military documents. He has been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay since at least 2006.