The Pentagon sent two long-held Tunisian captives from Guantanamo to trials in Italy Monday, the Obama administration's first outsourced prosecutions of detainees from the prison camps to a third country.
The latest transfers downsized the detainee population at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba to 213 as part of a continuing trend by Europe to assist US. efforts to close the camps.
Tunisians Abel Ben Mabrouk bin Hamida Boughanmi, 39, and Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri, 43, were "the subject of outstanding arrests warrants in Italy and will be prosecuted there,'' a Justice Department statement said.
Both men were flown from the remote U.S. Navy base to a Milan airport, and then into immediate custody.
A Justice Department announcement said the two men were sent under an agreement negotiated in September between Attorney General Eric Holder and Italy's Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano.
It also declared the United States' gratitude "to the government of Italy for helping achieve President [Barack] Obama's directive to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.''
The Milan daily Corriere Della Sera said an Italian magistrate sought their extraditions for international terror investigation and ultimately trial for criminal association, aiding illegal immigration and other crimes.
They allegedly were linked to a group that both engaged in drug trafficking and "recruited people for martyrdom in countries at war'' between 1997 and 2001, the newspaper said.
Italy asked Washington to hand over the younger of the two men as far back as 2005, the Rome daily Il Messaggero reported.
In Washington, attorney Jon Fee declined to say whether the 39-year-old, who goes by Mabrouk, had opposed his transfer to Italy. "Mr. Mabrouk asked us not to discuss his case with the press and I want to respect his wishes,'' Fee said.
The transfer apparently differed to some degree from an extradition agreement because the U.S. government continues to insist that, as a 45-square-mile leased space in southeast Cuba, the prison camps in Guantánamo are not on U.S. soil.
A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, declined to discuss the trial arrangement, if any. Nor would he confirm an Il Messaggero report that a third Tunisian at Guantanamo Abdul Bin Mohammed Ourgy, 44, was covered by the same transfer agreement.
"I believe it is the first time since January of this year in which detainees have been transferred from Guantánamo to a foreign nation for prosecution purposes,'' Boyd said.
In June, the U.S. repatriated Saudi citizens from Guantánamo under an arrangement that would subject them first to a judicial review then to a rehabilitation program. That transfer didn't explicitly require the men be prosecuted.