The case of Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who sought asylum in the UK, and lived here for nearly three years, has long been a source of concern for human rights activists. Although he was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, he is terrified of returning to Algeria, and with good reason. Although he left Algeria for the UK in 1999, because he had received threats from the GIA (the Groupe Islamique Armé), he is now a marked man by the government, which convicted him in absentia in a court last November and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for belonging to an “overseas terrorist group.”
His lawyers at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, explained that no lawyer was appointed to defend him at the trial, and that, despite “repeated requests and extensive investigation,” they had been unable to discover what he was supposed to have done. No evidence was produced to support his conviction, and they concluded that it “appears to be retaliation against Ahmed for speaking out about the inhumane treatment he would be subjected to if sent to Algeria.”
Since 2008, Ahmed has been protected from being forcibly repatriated to Algeria, through an injunction put in place by a US District Court. However, that injunction was dissolved in February. His lawyers immediately asked for the decision to be reversed, citing the fact that the US Supreme Court was, at that time, considering a related case, Kiyemba v Obama (known as Kiyemba II — see here for an explanation), in which the Court of Appeals had ruled that US courts could not prevent the Obama administration from sending prisoners to other countries — including, in theory, the forcible repatriation of prisoners like Ahmed to countries where they face the risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
On March 22, the Supreme Court decided not to review Kiyemba II, hurling Ahmed and other prisoners once more into a dangerously unprotected limbo. Reprieve immediately submitted a plea on his behalf to the District Court, and followed this up with an emergency motion over the Easter weekend, following a visit to Algeria by Attorney General Eric Holder to sign a “mutual legal assistance treaty” with the Algerian Minister of Justice, which raised legitimate fears that Ahmed would soon be repatriated against his will.
On April 20, a judge turned down Ahmed’s plea, and Reprieve immediately repeated its long-standing call for other countries to offer him a new home. In negotiations over the last few months, Reprieve, in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Amnesty International, has tried to secure a new home for Ahmed in the UK, Ireland or Luxembourg, but without success. Ironically, the only place to offer him a home is Amherst, Massachusetts, where residents voted last year to take in Ahmed and a Russian prisoner, Ravil Mingazov, but will need to persuade Congress to repeal legislation passed last year preventing the resettlement of any Guantánamo prisoner on the US mainland.
In light of these new developments, the need for another country to offer Ahmed a home is greater than ever — and no country is better suited to accept him than the UK.
As Amnesty International’s UK director Kate Allen explained last week, “It is totally understandable that Ahmed Belbacha is concerned that a new US-Algeria deal could mean he’s sent to Algeria despite the human rights dangers. As with other Guantánamo prisoners, we’re insisting that Mr. Belbacha shouldn’t be exposed to fresh danger by being sent where his human rights may be placed at risk. This is certainly the case with Algeria. And there should be no question of the US and Algerian authorities producing ‘diplomatic assurances’ supposedly guaranteeing safe treatment. These, as we’ve seen in other cases, simply can’t be trusted. As someone who has previously lived in the UK, the best solution is that the UK authorities end the deadlock and uncertainty by offering a safe haven to Mr. Belbacha.”
I encourage readers to write to the foreign secretary David Miliband, asking him to offer Ahmed a new home in the UK. A template for a letter, which also asks the UK to act decisively to secure the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, is available below, for readers to cut and paste and adapt as they see fit:
A letter to David Miliband
David Miliband MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London, SW1A 2AH
Dear Foreign Secretary,
You will be aware that, as of 22 January this year, the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay was still open, despite the fact that one of President Obama’s first pledges as President was to close it by this date. 183 prisoners are still held there, and many of those men, cleared for release by the President’s own task Force, cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment, and are effectively stateless.
The government has succeeded over the past six years in securing the release of all the British nationals held there, and all but one of the British residents. Given our strong relationship with the US, there is far more that the British government could — and should — be doing. You have asserted your commitment to closing Guantánamo Bay, but this has yet to be demonstrated in the case of the final British resident, Shaker Aamer, who was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007.
We have been told that the return of Shaker Aamer to his British wife and four British children is being sought, and that discussions between the UK and the US are ongoing. Nevertheless, Shaker is still held, and intervention must be made at the highest levels to secure his release, as happened with other prisoners.
Other European countries have demonstrated over the past year that it is possible to offer new homes to cleared prisoners, even when they have no prior ties to the country. France, for example, having secured the return of its own nationals, accepted two Algerian nationals last year, as well as the family of one of these men, and Albania, Belgium, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland have also accepted prisoners on a purely humanitarian basis. There are no reasons for the British government not to accept a small number of prisoners on a humanitarian basis to help close Guantánamo Bay.
Over the past eight years, for example, you have argued that there is no basis to accept Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian man who lived in Bournemouth and cannot return to Algeria for fear for his life, because he was a failed asylum seeker. Mr. Belbacha was also cleared for release in 2007, and yet he remains in Guantánamo because no other country will take him, and because the British government, which could so easily offer him a new home, has turned its back on him.
The British government must demonstrate its commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law by helping to close down Guantánamo Bay, and it can — and should — do this by pressing for the return of Shaker Aamer, accepting Ahmed Belbacha and accepting other prisoners on a humanitarian basis.
Ahmed’s story (via Reprieve)
Ahmed was born in Algiers in 1969. He comes from a middle class family with eleven children. After high school, Ahmed trained from 1988 to 1989 as an accountant for Algeria’s premier oil company, Sonatrach, where he made an impression as a star player on the company’s famous football team. He was then called up for a term of national service. When he finished, Ahmed returned to Sonatrach for approximately four years (until 1997), working in its commercial division.
Then a fateful turn of events changed Ahmed’s quiet life: he was recalled by the army. Shortly afterwards, the major terrorist group in Algeria — the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) — began to threaten Ahmed’s life. The GIA’s stated mission was to overthrow the secular Algerian regime and install an Islamist one in its place. They threatened to murder Ahmed if he rejoined the army, and told him to quit his job at Sonatrach, as it was a government company. These were no empty threats: the GIA were notorious for killing people after their military service, and had carried out violence against Sonatrach employees.
In an effort to lie low Ahmed went to work for his father’s business, rather than returning to Sonatrach. But the threats continued; the GIA visited Ahmed’s family and menaced them as well. Fearing for their safety, Ahmed decided to leave Algeria.
He travelled via France to England, where he headed for Bournemouth and started life as an asylum seeker working in a launderette. He then worked at the Swallow Royal Hotel while the 1999 Labour Party conference was taking place. Ahmed was in charge of cleaning Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s room during the conference and received a personal thank you note and a healthy tip from Mr Prescott.
In 2001 Ahmed was invited to the Home Office to discuss his asylum application. Unfortunately, his application for asylum was refused. He appealed, but the procedure dragged on for months. He was having increasing difficulty finding steady work and greatly feared deportation. He decided to travel to Pakistan, where he could take advantage of free educational programs to study the Koran. He hoped after a few months the economy would be better and his job prospects would improve.
Ahmed left the UK for Pakistan with a friend in June 2001. He had a return ticket to come back six months later, to pursue his asylum appeal. After some time in Pakistan, Ahmed’s friend suggested they see what life was like in Afghanistan, a Muslim country. This was well before September 11 and Afghanistan at the time was relatively peaceful.
Ahmed crossed into Afghanistan and spent a few months there in an Algerian guest house. After the US invaded and the Northern Alliance began rounding up Arabs, he realized it was not safe for him to stay. He spent 20 days in the Afghan mountains before being taken to the Pakistani border by Afghans.
Ahmed hoped to reach Islamabad, from where he would fly back home to the UK. He did not make it. After crossing the border from Afghanistan in December 2001, Ahmed was seized in a small village and taken briefly to a border prison. He was then transferred to another prison six or seven hours’ drive away, where he was held for about two weeks and interrogated by the CIA. He was then moved to Kandahar, where he underwent further interrogation and suffered beatings and other physical abuse. In March 2002 he was transferred to Guantánamo. He has remained there ever since.
Meanwhile, in January 2002, while Ahmed was in Guantánamo, his final asylum appeal was denied. The main reason: he did not turn up for the appeal hearing. The appeals judge did not know that Ahmed was a prisoner at the time, as the US kept Guantánamo prisoners’ identities secret.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Thanks for posting this, Andy. I have been feeling very despondent of late re Ahmed’s case. Hopefully, there will be a change of government and if so, the new Foreign Secretary will be more sympathetic.
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