Two inmates from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba have been sent home to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said Monday, bringing the total number remaining there to 160.
President Barack Obama is trying to accelerate repatriations in order to close the prison, nearly 12 years after it was opened at a US naval base on the southeastern tip of the island.
The prison was opened in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to house suspects captured by US forces and spies in anti-terror operations around the world.
Its use has been controversial and hurt the United States' global standing. Detainees have complained of mistreatment, and many were held for years without trial while others faced military tribunals.
Lawmakers are working on measures to ease restrictions on sending detainees home or to third countries, but plans to close the facility have been thwarted by a ban on transferring them to US soil.
In the meantime, Obama's special envoys on closing the prison are working within the current regulations to send inmates home.
Saad Muhammad Husayn Qahtani and Hamood Abdulla Hamood were designated for transfer after a "comprehensive review" of their cases by an interagency task force, Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said.
The Defense Department's special envoy for Guantanamo, Paul Lewis, said the US and Saudi Arabia worked together to ensure "these transfers took place with appropriate security assurances and in a way that is consistent with our humane treatment policy."
"The US has made real progress in responsibly transferring Guantanamo detainees despite the burdensome legislative restrictions that have impeded our efforts," he said.
He added that he and his counterpart from the State Department, Cliff Sloan, are "committed" to transferring additional detainees, "to the maximum extent possible as we work to reduce the detainee population and ultimately close the facility."
A statement from Sloan echoed this sentiment: “These transfers are an important step on the road to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility."
The State Department confirmed both men were Saudi nationals.
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A Defense Department document said Hamood was 48 years old. A document released by anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks indicated that Qahtani was 35 years old.
A Pentagon official told AFP Monday there are still 15 Saudis in Guantanamo, some of whom are not eligible for release. Among Guantanamo's so-called "high value prisoners" is the self-declared mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Since Obama took office, "around 80" detainees have been transferred out of the prison camp, the official said.
"The transfer of the two Saudis is a very positive development," said Wells Dixon, senior attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several Guantanamo inmates.
"I know that they were long approved for transfer," Dixon said, adding he was "hopeful that the rate of transfers will increase substantially" if the Congressional deal easing restrictions passes.
Christopher Anders from the ACLU called their release "long overdue."
"Neither of the detainees were ever charged with a crime," he noted.
Anders expressed confidence the lighter restrictions would pass before the end of the year, which "should make it possible for the Defense Department to clear out most, if not all, of the detainees who have not been charged with a crime."
Before these latest transfers, there were 82 inmates, including 56 Yemenis, at Guantanamo who had been cleared for release.
A report by the Sudanese news agency indicates two more detainees are on their way home to Sudan.
Two Sudanese nationals, "Mohamed Nour Osman and Ibrahim Osman Ibrahim Idris, are due to arrive in Khartoum on Wednesday, December 18," the state-run news agency reported, citing a statement from the Sudanese foreign ministry.
On December 5, two Algerians were repatriated from Guantanamo, despite the prisoners' protests they could face persecution there.