The Pentagon announced Thursday that it repatriated two long-held Algerians from the prison camps at Guantánamo — the first detainee transfer from the U.S. Navy base in nearly a year.
The men, Nabil Hadjarab, 34, and Motai Sayab, 37, were held as Detainees 238 and 288, and among the first prisoners brought to Cuba soon after the Bush administration set up the detention center in 2002. An Obama administration official called the transfer, conducted in secret on Wednesday, a sign of the White House commitment to close the camps.
It was not immediately known if the men were released in their homeland on return. The Associated Press reported from Algiers that the two men “were interrogated by judicial authorities pending an investigation” and were placed in detention until they appear before a prosecutor.
Sayab’s lawyer, Buz Eisenberg, said Algerians returned from the prison camps are typically held up to 12 days incommunicado for questioning on whether they should face trial, and then sent home.
The release was also the first since President Barack Obama pledged in a May 23 national-security speech — amid a widespread prison hunger strike — to redouble his efforts to close the detention center in southeast Cuba.
As of Thursday, the prison held 164 detainees, three of them convicted of war crimes and six others awaiting death-penalty trials. The rest remain in a variety of statuses, including at least 84 cleared for transfer in one fashion or another, like the Algerians who were just sent home .
U.S. Special Envoy Cliff Sloan, recently appointed to negotiate releases from the State Department, said in a statement that Thursday’s transfer “reflects our renewed efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo.
“President Obama’s directive to close Guantánamo is very clear,” Sloan added. “This is an important step, and we are moving forward.”
One of the repatriated Algerians, Hadjarab, had gotten some celebrity attention in recent months. The novelist John Grisham used a New York Times column Aug. 10 to campaign for the Algerian-born, France-raised prisoner’s release as one captive in Cuba who enjoyed his books.
Hadjarab was also one of the publicly identified protesters in the recently widespread prison hunger strikes, whose lawyers said was systematically force-fed.. The Britain based legal activist group, Reprieve, which represents him, created a cartoon that focused on his plight in June.
At Reprieve in London, spokesman Donald Campbell said Hadjarab “agreed to being repatriated to Algeria. Of course he would ultimately like to return to France, where his family is — and we hope he will be able to do so some day. Nevertheless, he is grateful to the Algerians for accepting him.”
Eisenberg said from his law office in Northampton, Mass., that Sayab’s return was also voluntary.
“His No. 1 priority was getting out of Guantánamo,” said Eisenberg, “and he was perfectly happy going home to Algeria.”
Both men were brought to Guantánamo in the earliest day of the prison, when captives were still kept at Camp X-Ray.
Sayab got there on Jan. 20, 2002, two weeks after Pakistani forces handed him over to U.S. troops, according to his leaked Guantánamo risk assessment obtained by McClatchy Newspapers through Wikileaks.
Eisenberg, Sayab’s lawyer, said the Algerian was a hunger striker who avoided tube feedings by occasionally eating bread, fruit and yogurt and drinking a can of Ensure. He’s a single man, with seven siblings who worked as a trained chef prior to his capture — in both Syria and France.
At Guantánamo, Army Lt. Col. Samuel House said that, as of Thursday morning, 36 detainees were still on hunger strike. Of them, 32 were on a Navy medical list to receive forced-feedings if they did not voluntarily drink a nutritional supplement or agree to have renourishment delivered to their stomachs through a nasogastric tube.
Hadjarab got to the prison camps in Cuba on Feb. 15, according to his 2007 Guantánamo file.
Both files indicate that the U.S. military recommended each man be sent home from Cuba as far back as 2007. Both were subsequently cleared for transfer by the Obama administration.
Eisenberg, in a statement, called Sayab “a poster boy for all that is wrong about Guantánamo Bay,” and an “unwitting and undeserving victim of a misguided response to terrorism.”
“Motai is innocent of any conduct remotely related to terror, and in fact abhors and deplores such conduct,” he said. “He has nevertheless been beaten, forced to live in isolation, and stripped of his inalienable right to freedom.”
Eisenberg said the United States should pay his client compensation for the lost “11 1/2 years of his young life” and to help him “readjust to life as a free Algerian citizen.”
Thursday’s was the first release from the prison camps since the Obama administration resettled two Muslims of Uighur ethnicity in El Salvador in April 2012. It was the first overall transfer since the Pentagon sent convicted “teen terrorist” Omar Khadr to his native Canada to complete a seven-year prison sentence Sept. 29, 2012.
The transfer was not a surprise, although the timing was not publicly known.
Last month, the White House announced that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, for the first time, had certified the release under requirements imposed by Congress’ current National Defense Authorization Act with the approval of Secretary of State John Kerry and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
The two men who were released have been publicly identified as having a variety of names. Algeria, for example, announced the release of “Hadj Arab Nabil” and “Mouati Said Ahmed Sayab,” while federal court filings call them Nabil Hadjarab and Motai Saib.