MIAMI — Two men who have been held without charge at the Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade have been sent back to their native Algeria as part of a renewed effort to gradually close the prison, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The Pentagon identified the two men as Djamel Saiid Ali Ameziane and Belkecem Bensayah. Both had been held on suspicion of having links to terrorism but neither was charged with a crime.
Rob Kirsch, a lawyer for Bensayah, who was originally detained in Bosnia, had urged the State Department to resettle him in another country out of fear he could face persecution and imprisonment there as was the case with a Guantanamo prisoner repatriated to Algeria in July 2010.
The lawyer said he would help his client re-integrate into Algerian society and rebuild his life with a family he has not seen since 2002.
"After 12 years of detention without charge, this is a sad day for Mr. Bensayah," Kirsch said. "Certainly, he will make the best of it."
Both the 46-year-old Ameziane, who was captured in Afghanistan, and Bensayah, 51, fled Algeria during the country's civil war in the 1990s.
Over the years, the U.S. has repatriated 14 prisoners to Algeria, two were convicted of involvement with a foreign terrorist organization and only one remains in prison, according to the State Department.
The two releases bring the Guantanamo Bay prison population to 162. Only a handful of prisoners are currently facing charges, including five men accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. President Barack Obama had vowed to close the detention center upon taking office but was thwarted by Congress, which placed restrictions on transfers and releases amid security concerns.
Obama earlier this year appointed two special envoys to work with Congress and other countries on a renewed attempt to empty the prison. Clifford Sloan, the State Department's Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said the releases to Algeria are a sign of progress.
"We appreciate the close co-operation of the government of Algeria on these transfers, as well as on the fourteen previous transfers of its nationals to Algeria from Guantanamo," Sloan said. "We are making progress on the President's commitment to close Guantanamo, and we look forward to continued progress on many fronts."