TORONTO (Reuters) - Mourad Benchellali, a French national and former Guantanamo Bay prisoner detained by Canadian police at a Toronto airport on Monday, will likely be released and allowed to return to France within hours, his Canadian lawyer said on Wednesday.
“The details are being worked out, but they are willing to allow him to return tonight,” Hadayt Nazami said in a phone interview. Benchellali would withdraw his request to enter Canada and voluntarily return to France, Nazami said.
Benchellali was arrested in 2001 at an Al Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and taken into custody by the U.S. Army. He was an inmate from January 2002 to July 2004 in the detention camp on the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where current and former prisoners have said they were tortured and otherwise abused.
Benchellali was set to attend a conference in Canada on preventing radicalization in prisons, but authorities arrested him because of concerns about the time he spent in Afghanistan, his lawyer said.
“What they were saying is that he was in a training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. He was there for just two months. And regardless of what has happened since then it makes no difference to them,” Nazami said.
The Canadian Border Services Agency’s decision to release Benchellali was as a surprise to him and his lawyer because the Frenchman was expected to have a hearing by a higher level of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, Nazami said.
A CBSA spokesman declined to comment.
For the past two years, Benchellali has been part of an initiative to stop young people from joining Islamist militant groups in Syria, his supporters say.
Toronto-based filmmaker Eileen Thalenberg said she had invited Benchellali to Canada to attend the conference as part of a documentary she is producing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Thalenberg said she checked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and received assurances before bringing Benchellali from France to Iceland and then to Canada, so he would not fly over United States airspace.
“I would have never brought him otherwise,” she said.
The RCMP declined to comment, referring queries to the CBSA.
Thalenberg said Benchellali sent her a text message from prison on Wednesday saying: “I never thought I’d be in an orange jumpsuit again.”
Benchellali was previously stopped from boarding a flight to Canada in June because he is still on the U.S. government’s no-fly list and the plane would have passed through U.S. airspace.
Reporting by Chine Labbé in Paris, Catherine Lagrange in Lyon, Julie Gordon and Alastair Sharp in Toronto, Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Alan Crosby and Grant McCool