Djamel Ameziane had wanted to return to Canada or Europe, where he once lived and worked as a chef.
His brother, a Canadian citizen, wanted him back in Montreal, and he had the support of various religious and community organizations in Quebec.
In 2010, Canadian immigration officials visited him in Guantanamo Bay’s detention centre for an interview. Ameziane’s lawyers said Luxembourg also seemed interested in offering him refuge.
At the very least, Ameziane had told his family and lawyers, he would rather stay in Guantanamo than return to Algeria.
But in a surprise move Thursday, the U.S. State Department sent Ameziane and another Algerian detainee back to their birth country as part of a renewed effort to fulfil U.S. President Barack Obama’s long-stalled promise to close the detention facility.
The transfers reduce the prison population to 162 detainees.
“We appreciate the close co-operation of the government of Algeria on these transfers, as well as on the 14 previous transfers of its nationals,” Obama’s Guantanamo envoy, Clifford Sloan, said in an emailed statement.
But Wells Dixon, Ameziane’s lawyer with New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), was harsh in his criticism of the forcible repatriation. “The U.S. State Department views these men as numbers on a spread sheet and doesn’t worry about ruining their lives,” Dixon said.
Ameziane has not been in Algeria since he fled in 1992 during the country’s civil war. He worked first as a chef in an Italian restaurant in Vienna and then moved to Montreal three years later to seek asylum.
He fled to Afghanistan after his application in Canada was denied in 2000 and he was on the move again following the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Ameziane was one of hundreds captured by Pakistani forces, sold to the U.S. for a bounty and sent to Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon initially claimed he was staying at an Al Qaeda guest house in Afghanistan, but Ameziane was not charged. In 2008, during the Bush administration, he was cleared for release.
Ameziane and detainee Belkecem Bensayah were put in custody upon their return to Algeria and are expected to appear in court, according to Algerian state television.
“(Ameziane) has this long public track record of seeking refuge outside of Algeria,” Dixon said. “The concern is as he’s put on trial in what is effectively a sham proceeding, he’s going to be punished for embarrassing the Algerian government.”
London-based lawyer Jennifer Oscroft, who worked with CCR to explore options for the resettlement of detainees in Europe, said Ameziane was “an obvious candidate for resettlement.” She accused the U.S. government of choosing political expediency over the individual concerns of the men.
Oscroft said Luxembourg’s response to Ameziane’s case had been positive, but when a delegation travelled to Guantanamo in 2010, they met with a Yemeni detainee instead.
A State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity countered that “Luxembourg wasn’t a viable resettlement opportunity” in Ameziane’s case. “Things said to attorneys aren’t necessarily reflective of conversations we have with governments,” the official said.
Of the detainees who have returned to Algeria, the State Department says two were convicted of being involved in a terrorist organization and one remains in prison.
Sloan’s spokesperson, Ian Moss, said in an emailed statement Thursday that the department has not received any “credible or substantiated information to suggest that any of these former detainees have been mistreated by Algerian authorities or targeted by extremists operating in Algeria.”
“The recent repatriation of two Algerian national detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to Algeria was conducted in compliance with all applicable domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States.”