By Estelle Shirbon
PARIS (Reuters) – An Algerian man detained at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo in Cuba for almost eight years was transferred to France on Tuesday, the French Foreign Ministry said, a year after a U.S. court cleared him.
The U.S. Justice Department said later that another man, originally from the West Bank, had been released from Guantanamo and sent to Hungary. It did not identify him.
The transfers were part of a drive by U.S. President Barack Obama to close the widely criticized jail created by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to house terrorism suspects captured abroad.
The man sent to France, Saber Lahmar, was among five Algerian-born prisoners who were ordered released in November 2008 by a U.S. judge who ruled that the government had failed to prove they were planning violent attacks against Americans.
Three of the men were sent to their adopted homeland of Bosnia in December 2008, while a fourth, Lakhdar Boumediene, was transferred to France in May. The French ministry did not say why Lahmar’s transfer had taken so long.
It said Lahmar, who was arrested in Bosnia in October 2001 with five other Algerian-born men and sent to Guantanamo in January 2002, had been cleared of all terrorism charges.
The statement said that by agreeing to host Lahmar, France was contributing to Obama’s efforts to shut down Guantanamo, which has long been denounced by U.S. critics as a place where human rights were routinely violated.
“We have chosen to support the implementation of President Obama’s decision, which meets with a long-standing expectation of the European Union,” the French ministry said.
“After seven years of incarceration at Guantanamo, Mr Lahmar can at last resume a normal life,” it said.
Asked why Lahmar was sent to France rather than Algeria, the ministry’s spokesman Bernard Valero said it was Lahmar’s choice.
Obama pledged to close Guantanamo with a year of taking office but he has acknowledged that the January 22 deadline would likely be missed because of political and diplomatic obstacles.
The prison camp set up under Bush in 2002 quickly drew international condemnation because of harsh interrogation techniques and judicial processes that were deemed unfair.
More than 200 detainees remain in the prison. About 90 have been cleared to be transferred, but the Obama administration, limited by Congress from bringing them into the United States, has struggled to convince other countries to take them in.
Lahmar was the second taken in by France after Boumediene.
Both men were among a group of Guantanamo detainees who won a landmark case when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 they had the right to challenge their continued confinement.
Months later, a federal court ordered the release of five of the six Algerian-born detainees arrested in Bosnia.
Bush had said in 2002 the six had been planning to bomb the American embassy in Sarajevo. But the U.S. Justice Department dropped that accusation in 2008, instead saying they should be held because they had planned to travel to Afghanistan in late 2001 to fight U.S. forces there.
The federal judge said the new allegation was based on only one unnamed source whose credibility was not certain.