Nabil Hadjarab, former Guantanamo prisoner repatriated to Algeria (Photo from Reprieve)

(update below)

The Defense Department transferred two prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison into the custody of the Algerian government. It was the first repatriation of prisoners since President Barack Obama delivered a speech in May on the need to still close the prison. It also was the first transfer of a prisoner from the base in Cuba in over a year, according to Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg.

As reported by Rosenberg, Nabil Hadjarab, who is thirty-four years-old, and Motai Sayab, who is thirty-seven years-old, were “among the first prisoners brought to Cuba soon after the Bush administration set up the detention center in 2002.” The Algerian Press Service announced that “competent courts” would use “legal procedures” that were “established for earlier transfers the government of Algeria negotiated with the United States” to decide what to do with the two men.

Rosenberg quoted Sayab’s lawyer, Buz Eisenberg, who 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.”

Journalist Andy Worthington highlighted in February 2012 the repatriation of Guantanamo prisoners to Algeria and how Algeria was not a particularly “safe country.” In fact, multiple prisoners given the opportunity to be transferred to the country have “resisted being sent home” and have “taken their cases all the way to the US Supreme Court.”

Hadjarab, who recently gained some attention because he is a fan of books by John Grisham, which are banned at Guantanamo, wanted to be returned to France.

The UK-based legal charity known for promoting human rights and justice, Reprieve, represents Hadjarab. His grandfather fought in the First World War for france. His father fought for France in the French Algerian War and served as a member of General de Gaulle’s Republican Guard. His father refused to serve as a member of the Algerian police force so he could return to France. “All of Nabil’s family are French citizens,” and yet he was sent to Algeria.

France bears a level of responsibility for the decision. The government could have stood up for Hadjarab and fought to have him returned to the country. That he was sent to Algeria suggests France was essentially silent or complicit when it came to how the US government planned to handle Hadjarab’s transfer.

Sketch artist and journalist Molly Crabapple profiled Hadjarab prior to his transfer.

Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.

At 34, Nabil is four years my senior. We both speak French, draw pictures, and, in our youths, liked to travel to desolate places and have adventures. But Nabil’s days of wanderlust may be over forever. Although he’s been cleared for release since 2007, the US will not return him to his family in France.  He has vowed to remain on a hunger strike till he finds freedom or death, whichever happens first.

There are currently thirty-six prisoners who remain on hunger strike. Thirty-two of them are being force-fed (though the Defense Department prefers the euphemism “tube fed.”) One prisoner on hunger strike has been hospitalized.

The transfer of the two prisoners brings the total number of prisoners cleared for release to eighty-four. While US Special Envoy Cliff Sloan told the Miami Herald that this “reflects” the Obama administration’s “renewed efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo,” there are no indications that any other prisoners are about to be transferred soon.

This shows the government can repatriate Guantanamo prisoners, but, perhaps, the repatriation was done specifically because the Algerian government will put on a show trial and prosecute them. Other countries like Yemen, which have demanded the release of Yemeni prisoners (twenty-five which are cleared for transfer), would likely release the prisoners once they returned.

Crabapple recently pointed out, “One of the ironies of [Guantanamo] is that men found guilty of war crimes serve out their sentences and are released before those cleared to leave.”

The irony owes its existence to the fact that the military commissions system, which Obama has embraced, is terribly dysfunctional. The government is also routinely violating the attorney-client privilege lawyers are supposed to be able to enjoy when representing prisoners.

Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International stated, “The US government is creating a ‘Frankencourt’ at Guantanamo before our eyes cobbled together from disputed rules, unsettled procedures and pervasive secrecy. The Guantanamo military commissions do not meet international fair trial standards.

“This monster’s apparent purpose is to ensure convictions, execute the defendants, and hide evidence of torture,” Johnson added. “President Obama should redirect his administration’s resources toward prosecuting the 9/11 suspects fairly in US federal court, transferring cleared detainees, and closing the detention facility.”

For over eleven years, Hadjarab and Sayab were held without charge or trial. A number of those years were spent in detention knowing they were innocent but were not going to be going home any time soon because the government was going to be setting them free.

British prisoner Shaker Aamer, along with others, remain in prison. How much longer will their detention be?

Update

Rosenberg reports that both prisoners went to Algeria voluntarily. Despite what is suggested in the post, they were not sent to Algeria against their will, according to their lawyers.