Algerian sent home after 12 years at Guantanamo

MIAMI, Florida: 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.

The transfer of Ahmed Bel Bacha to the custody of the Algerian government brings the detainee population at Guantanamo to 154, the Pentagon said in a brief statement.

Bel Bacha was detained at Guantanamo as a suspected militant with links to al-Qaida when he was convicted in absentia in Algeria in 2009. A member of his legal team, Polly Rossdale of the British human rights group Reprieve, said the Algerian charges against him had not been publicly disclosed. Nevertheless, she said he was 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,” Rossdale said.

Prisoners from Guantanamo who are sent back to Algeria are typically detained for about 10 days while authorities there evaluate whether to pursue criminal charges. Most have been released.

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.

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 there have been a handful of transfers and releases in recent months.

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