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Released GITMO detainees fear for their safety

The U.S. sent two Guantanamo Bay detainees to Algeria against their own wishes, a move that their lawyers say places them at serious risk of persecution.
U.S. Naval Base and detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba, 2012.
U.S. Naval Base and detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba, 2012.

The United States sent two Guantanamo Bay detainees to Algeria against their own wishes, a move that their lawyers say places them at serious risk of persecution.

The Department of Defense announced Thursday that it had transferred Djamel Saiid Ali Ameziane and Bensayah Belkecem to the government of Algeria. Both men had been fighting their repatriation because they feared being targeted by government security forces and extremist groups.

The transfer is the second since President Obama vowed to redouble efforts to close the Guantanamo prison facility in a May national security speech; two more men were sent to Algeria in August. Currently, 162 men remain at the prison, 82 of whom have been cleared for transfer or release by an administration-appointed task force. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Wednesday at a human rights conference that more transfers could be expected soon.

Clifford Sloan, the State Department special envoy for closing Guantanamo, in a statement touted the release of Ameziane and Belkecem as a positive step. “We are making progress on the president’s commitment to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, and we look forward to continued progress on many fronts.”

That progress comes at the expense of the newly released men's human rights, says Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Ameziane. "The Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. is a party, prohibits sending anyone to a country where it's more likely than not that they will face torture of persecution," Dixon told msnbc.

While the Defense Department said in its statement that it worked with the Algerian government "to ensure these transfers took place with appropriate security and humane treatment assurances," there is no way to enforce those assurances, Dixon says. Ameziane had applied to settle in Canada, and Luxembourg offered in 2010 to allow him to resettle there; Belkecem had asked to return to Bosnia, where he was arrested in 2001, to reunite with his wife and children.

"Why in the world would the U.S. government think it is safe to send them back to Algeria?" Dixon asked. "It suggests to me that they’re numbers on a spreadsheet and that the State Department doesn’t care if they ruin their lives." Neither man was charged with a crime during their time at Guantanamo.

The Defense Department also announced Tuesday that it will soon send home a Sudanese man who has completed his sentence after he pleaded guilty in 2011 to providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy charges. While a Pentagon spokesman said that the prisoner, Noor Uthman Mohammed, would be sent home "as soon as is practicable," he offered no specifics.

While President Obama promised to close Guantanamo more than five years ago, progress has been slow and sporadic and marked by clashes with Congress and court battles over detainee rights and how to proceed with military commission trials for the few men currently being prosecuted. In February, detainees began a hunger strike that at its peak included 106 prisoners and that continues today; the Defense Department announced Wednesday it would no longer provide hunger strike numbers, saying daily reports "serves no operational purpose."

The administration has cited congressional opposition as one of its main obstacles to releasing more detainees, but recent efforts suggest that opposition may be softening. The Senate recently approved measures that would ease some of the current restrictions on transferring detainees, and a bipartisan group of senators, including hawks like John McCain of Arizona and California's Dianne Feinstein, have called on the president to shutter the prison. Both Dixon and Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's Security & Human Rights Program, pointed to this growing consensus as a positive sign that could be undermined by the White House.

"It's frustrating that it’s so hard for the administration to do the right thing," says Johnson. "Closing Guantanamo should mean that each person either gets a fair criminal trial or a fair process to ensure that he is released to a country that will respect his rights."

The men sent to Algeria are only two of dozens who are cleared to leave the prison but are not allowed to return to a country in which they feel safe. Shaker Aamer, a Saudi man with legal permanent residency in the UK, has been cleared for release for years, but despite public requests by the UK government to let him return to his family in London, he remains at Guantanamo.

"Of all the people who are approved and who want to go home, I don’t understand why in the world the U.S. government started its efforts with these two individuals," Dixon told msnbc. "I think it shows that the Obama administration doesn't have a sensible, coherent plan for closing Guantanamo."