The Obama administration announced Thursday that it has released two prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Algeria, the first transfers from the detention center in almost a year.
The two Algerians are also the first inmates to leave Guantanamo since President Obama pledged in May to redouble his efforts to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba. Obama originally promised to empty Guantanamo upon taking office in 2009, but as of Thursday, 164 prisoners remained.
The Pentagon identified the Algerians as Nabil Said Hadjarab, 34, and Mutia Sadiq Ahmad Sayyab, 37.
Attorneys for the men have said they were among dozens of Guantanamo inmates who had joined a mass hunger strike to protest their prolonged detention. Both men were brought to Guantanamo in early 2002, shortly after the first detention camp at the base was opened. Hadjarab was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, and Sayyab was arrested in Pakistan.
Military files show that U.S. officials had recommended their release several years ago. But like many others at Guantanamo, their cases became stuck as the White House and Congress feuded over what to do with inmates at the prison.
About half of those remaining have also been cleared for transfer, but finding a place willing or able to accept them has been difficult. U.S. officials fear that some could face reprisals or torture if sent to their home countries, while others might join militant groups if they are not kept under close watch.
The Algerians are the first to leave Guantanamo since September, when the prison’s youngest inmate, Omar Khadr, 26, was sent home to Canada to serve the remainder of an eight-year sentence as part of a plea deal for killing a U.S. medic. He was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15.
The Obama administration notified Congress last month of its intent to release the two Algerians, certifying that they no longer pose a threat to U.S. national security. Neither man was publicly identified at the time.
“President Obama’s directive to close Guantanamo is very clear. This is an important step, and we are moving forward,” Clifford Sloan, Obama’s special envoy for closing Guantanamo, said in a statement Thursday.
The Algerian government “raised no objection” to the men’s release, according to the state-run Algeria Press Service. It was unclear whether the Algerian government would keep the men in custody or allow them to go free.
In the past, Algerian inmates at Guantanamo have expressed fears that they could face torture or death if sent home, either at the hands of the Algerian government or jihadist groups.
In 2010, the Obama administration sent Aziz Abdul Naji, 35, to Algeria against his will. He and another Algerian inmate had unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to allow them to stay at Guantanamo, arguing that it was too dangerous to go back.
U.S. officials said they have received diplomatic assurances from the Algerian government that the former prisoners will not be mistreated. They said the Algerians have met all previous commitments.
Hadjarab was born in Algeria but grew up in France and hopes to reunite there with his family, said his attorney, Cori Crider, a lawyer with Reprieve, a British legal foundation that has advocated for many Guantanamo inmates.
“After a dozen years of needless detention and abuse in U.S. custody, Nabil is embarking on the greatest adventure of his adult life — freedom,” Crider said in a statement. “He arrives in Algeria weakened from his hunger strike, but with high hopes for the future.”