End 22 Years Of Injustice

Meet the Cleared Algerian Prisoners in Guantánamo Who Fear Being Repatriated

Belkacem Bensayah

Belkacem Bensayah, in a photo from Guantánamo, included in his classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.

By Andy Worthington

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal ran a story by Jess Bravin looking at an important -- and depressing -- development at Guantánamo, concerning the Obama administration's plans to repatriate two Algerian prisoners against their will.

As Jess Bravin described it, he had spoken to people familiar with the stories of the two men -- Belkacem Bensayah and Djamel Ameziane -- who had told him that both men "fear that Islamist extremists will try to recruit them and may attack or kill them when they discover [they] don't share their commitment to violence."

Robert Kirsch, one of the attorneys for Belkacem Bensayah, said that the U.S. government has "ignored the protests" of his client and of Djamel Ameziane. He called the proposed repatriation "the most callous, political abuse of these men."

Kirsch added that the repatriation was being speeded up so that the Obama administration "can show progress on its troubled campaign" to close Guantánamo, as Jess Bravin decribed it.

Both men were approved for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office in 2009. They are just two out of of 84 cleared prisoners still held, out of 164 prisoners in total, but it is completely unacceptable for them to be forcibly repatriated just so that President Obama administration can look as if he is fulfilling his promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, which he made in a major speech on national security issues in May.

As Bravin explained, both men have persistently made it clear that they fear being returned to Algeria.

Djamel Ameziane, photographed in Guantánamo.

Djamel Ameziane, 46, is, as he put it, "an ethnic Berber who left Algeria to avoid oppression," and lived in Austria and Canada, where he was well regarded as a chef, prior to his capture in Pakistan in 2001. He is represented by lawyers at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and we told his story here last year. Bravin noted that court documents indicated that "he has been fighting repatriation to Algeria since at least 2009, and has applied for resettlement in Canada" (see this Toronto Star report from June).

Bravin failed to mention that, last March, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a key part of the Organization of American States (OAS), issued what was described as “a landmark admissibility report” in his case.

As CCR explained in a press release:

This ruling marks the first time the IACHR has accepted jurisdiction over the case of a man detained at Guantánamo, and underscores the fact that there has been no effective domestic remedy available to victims of unjust detentions and other abuses at the base. The IACHR will now move to gather more information on the substantive human rights law violations suffered by Djamel Ameziane -- including the harsh conditions of confinement he has endured, the abuses inflicted on him, and the illegality of his detention.

The IACHR will specifically review the U.S. government’s failure to transfer Djamel Ameziane or any man detained at Guantánamo for more than a year -- the longest period of time without a transfer since the prison opened in January 2002. This failure has moved the United States further out of compliance with international human rights law and the precautionary measures issued by the IACHR to Djamel Ameziane (2008) and other detained men (2002).

Belkacem Bensayah, 51, is one of six Algerians kidnapped by U.S. agents in Bosnia -- where they had been living and working for many years -- and taken to Guantánamo in January 2002. All six had been seized in October 2001, at the request of the U.S. authorities, in connection with an alleged plot to blow up the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo -- a plot that turned out to be groundless. As Jess Bravin put it, "The Sarajevo government handed them over to the U.S. in January 2002, despite Bosnian court orders that there were no grounds to hold them."

In November 2008 five of the men had their habeas corpus petitions granted by Judge Richard Leon in the District Court in Washington D.C., after Leon -- a George W. Bush appointee -- found that the government had failed to demonstrate that they were connected to either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Bensayah, however, had his habeas petition denied, after Judge Leon was swayed by the government's arguments that he was some sort of al-Qaeda "facilitator", who, as Jess Bravin put it, "had planned to go to Afghanistan to take up arms against the U.S. and assist others in the same."

Crucially, the appeals court in Washington D.C. later ordered the District Court to reconsider Bensayah's case, after the government "backed away from some of the claims it had made" against him, but by this time he had already been cleared for release by President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force.

Significantly, Kirsch said that Bensayah "wishes to be returned to Bosnia, where his wife and daughters are citizens and still live, or some third country where he could be reunited with his family," and not to Algeria. However, a U.S. official responded by telling Jess Bravin that "Washington's preference is to repatriate detainees to the country where they are citizens."

Nevertheless, it seems that plans for sending Belkacem Bensayah and Djamel Ameziane home are well advanced. Alarmingly, Kirsch said that both men had been given "exit interviews" by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which Jess Bravin described as "a routine procedure ahead of transfer from Guantánamo." Kirsch added that both men made their objections to their proposed repatriation clear to the Red Cross representatives, and that the ICRC, in turn, "has asked the U.S. to reconsider its decision."

Bravin noted that officials refused to comment on individual cases, but said they were concerned to "ensure security and humane treatment" when prisoners are transferred." They added that, over the last few years, they had "put off repatriation to several countries, including Tunisia, Syria and Uzbekistan, as well as Algeria," when prisoners "said they feared mistreatment at home."

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told Bravin, "Consistent with the Convention Against Torture and our own commitment to human rights, the United States is firm in its commitment to not transfer detainees to countries where we believe they would face torture. The United States takes seriously all credible claims of mistreatment."

Bravin sought a comment about the men's cases from Cliff Sloan, the State Department's special envoy for Guantánamo closure, who was appointed by President Obama in June. Bravin noted that it was Cliff Sloan who had "arranged for the repatriation of two other Algerians in August" -- the only two prisoners released since President Obama's promise, in May, to resume releasing prisoners -- although Sloan wouldn't comment on individual cases. All he would say is, "We are moving ahead on the president's commitment to close Guantánamo responsibly, and we are making progress."

Others commentators were as critical as Robert Kirsch of the decision to forcibly repatriate the two men. Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said, "When you hear people say they would rather spend the rest of their lives in Guantánamo than go to a particular place, you have to take that seriously."

She pointed out that Aziz Abdul Naji, who was forcibly repatriated in 2010, had been imprisoned upon his return. In fact, as I explained recently, he was convicted in January 2012 of "belonging to a terrorist group abroad," and is now serving a three-year sentence.

Andrea Prasow explained that the Obama administration's focus on repatriating prisoners to Algeria "stemmed from a determination that the country met the security conditions for transfer Congress imposed" in recent years, but stressed that it was unacceptable that, "while the U.S. moves to forcibly repatriate the Algerians, cleared detainees from other countries haven't been released."

That is certainly true, and it needs to be asked why some of these other men -- including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, for example -- are not freed instead of the unwilling Algerians. Other prisoners long cleared for release -- five Tunisians; the Mauritanian Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz; Salem Gherebi, a Libyan; Saad Qahtani, a Saudi; and Ibrahim Idris, a severely mentally ill Sudanese prisoner -- also need to be freed, regardless of whether the administration will need to make certifications to Congress to do so.

As Belkacem Bensayah and Djamel Ameziane continue to try and resist their enforced repatriation, Robert Kirsch told Jess Bravin that he had written to the Algerian ambassador in Washington, "imploring his government not to accede to an involuntary repatriation," as Bravin put it.

Kirsch wrote, "Mr. Bensayah fears he will be targeted by Muslim extremists in Algeria. He believes those extremists will expect him to sympathize with them -- only because he was held at Guantanamo -- and that they will attack or even kill him when they learn he opposes their violent ways." He added, significantly, that those fears "have been confirmed to us by a representative of the Algerian government."

I can only state, in concluding, that I hope the Obama administration will think again about its unacceptable plans to repatriate Belkacem Bensayah and Djamel Ameziane, and hope that arrangements can be made for them to be returned, instead, to Bosnia and, preferably, Canada.