I’ve already posted an article about the screening tonight of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” as part of the London International Documentary Festival at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1, so this is primarily a last-minute reminder, although it also gives me an opportunity to report on Saturday’s protest about the ongoing detention of Shaker Aamer (featured in the film), who is the last British resident in Guantánamo.
The screening, of the film described by Time Out as “a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy,” starts at 8 pm, tickets can be bought here, and the Q&A session, which provides one of the last opportunities to discuss the Labour government’s role in the “War on Terror” before the General Election, features myself, former prisoners Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes (both featured in the film), co-director Polly Nash and Tara Murray of Reprieve.
Sadly, it seems unlikely that the government will do anything about the plight of Shaker Aamer before the election, as Guantánamo — and Britain’s counter-terrorism policies in general — have slipped off the radar completely since the election was announced. As the Morning Star explained on Friday, “since the election was set, our telephone calls on stories such as the plight of Ahmed Belbacha [see below] or Shaker Aamer have met with a blank refusal of the main parties to comment, even to the extent of not returning the calls.”
On Saturday, I attended a protest opposite 10 Downing Street, at which members of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign delivered letters demanding Shaker’s immediate return to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Ivan Lewis.
Speakers at the protest included Jean Lambert MEP, Martin Linton MP, Victoria Brittain, Yvonne Ridley, Joy Hurcombe of Brighton Against Guantánamo and myself, but although we attracted a decent amount of attention, our discussions focused largely on how to push the new government to establish a strong relationship with the US from the very beginning by demanding Shaker’s immediate return — or, if Labour returns to power, how to push them to finally do the right thing, and to do what they have failed to do since Shaker was cleared for release back in 2007, which, of course, involves getting him back to his British wife and British children as soon as possible.
As ever, I chose on Saturday not only to publicize the unacceptable plight of Shaker Aamer and his family, but also to stress that whoever is in 10 Downing Street on May 7 needs to press the US not only for Shaker’s return, but also to offer new homes in the UK to other cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture; in particular, Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian (represented by Reprieve and also cleared for release in 2007), who is terrified of returning to Algeria, and who lived in the UK for nearly three years until he was kidnapped in Pakistan and sent to Guantánamo, but also other cleared prisoners, who have no connection to the UK, but who will not be freed until third countries offer to help out, as has happened with Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, France, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland.
Whoever is in 10 Downing Street on May 7 needs to understand that trying to take the moral high ground, as David Miliband has done by hectoring other countries to take cleared prisoners, while claiming that the UK has already played its part in helping to close Guantánamo, is both dishonest and disgraceful. Britain has only taken in its own citizens and residents, and should follow the example of the countries mentioned above, if only to show some willingness to atone for the government’s enthusiastic embrace of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” which has recently been exposed in the British courts.
Note: See here for further information about “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” click here to buy a copy of the film on DVD, and see here for information about the ongoing UK tour of the film. For a letter to David Miliband, demanding the return of Shaker Aamer and requesting the offer of new homes for Ahmed Belbacha and other cleared Guantánamo prisoners, see here. I’ll update this letter as soon as the results of the General Election are announced. For reports and photos from Saturday’s protest, see these articles on Press TV, Indymedia and Demotix. I also believe that it will soon be reported by Paul Cahalan of the Wandsworth Guardian (in Shaker’s home borough), who has done some great work in publicizing Shaker’s plight.
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.
I bought your book on Gitmo this weekend which I have been reading, which is heart breaking.
I’ve been scouring the web for news on Belbacha, since campaigns here seem to be focusing on Aamer, and was wondering if you knew why the Foreign Office claimed that Belbacha was living in the UK illegally? From what I can ascertain, he applied for asylum, given indefinite leave to remain and was even vetted by MI5 to work at the Labour Party conference in 1999. Is that right? Now I know MI5 can be incompetent at the best of times, but surely even they don’t make a practice of approving illegal immigrants?
Good to hear from you – and thanks for buying the book! As you may have seen, I published a appeal for Ahmed Belbacha last week: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/04/21/urgent-appeal-for-the-uk-to-offer-refuge-to-ahmed-belbacha-an-algerian-in-guantanamo/
Here’s Reprieve’s explanation of Ahmed’s Status:
“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 was then kidnapped and sent to Guantanamo, and “in January 2002, while [he] 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.”
So there you have it. Technically, the British government has no responsibility for him, as the FCO explained to me back in 2007:
Morally, however, it’s clear that no one is better placed to help out Ahmed than the UK, which is why the UK should help out — but as Britain has a deal with Algeria to send back “terror suspects” from the UK with some wafer-thin promise that they will be treated well, it helps to explain why they don’t want to interfere with the US government’s “right” to send him back. It’s pretty despicable.
Yes I did see that you raised awareness of his plight I was referring more to my recent correspondence with CagePrisoners who implied that because Skaker Aamer did actually have residency that his case is more winnable, which I found very depressing and frustrating because that is not how I operate! I have also been in contact with a few well-connected activists (we tend to focus more on the Israel-Palestine conflict so they don’t have anything to do with raising profile of Gitmo detainees) in Portugal and Germany and they have found that the reason why Ahmed won’t even be considered by their govts is because he has links with Britain and so he is considered our responsibility. Understandable, but also infuriating given Miliband’s stance.
Thanks for your explanation re Ahmed’s background – I was aware of all those details but I was querying why the FCO regarded him an an illegal immigrant when clearly he had been vetted by MI5 and he was an asylum seeker who had been given indefinite leave to remain. Very strange position that flies in the face of logic.
I didn’t realise that Britain has a deal with Algeria to send back terror suspects – that’s despicable indeed.
Thanks, Alexandra. That’s depressing — if predictable — news how other countries aren’t even considering Ahmed because he’s so clearly the responsibility of the UK. The truth, however, is that he wasn’t given indefinite leave to remain, which is why it’s so hard pressing minsters to find their hearts amidst all the bureaucracy.
And yes, it’s also true that they are unlikely to want to set a precedent of doing favours for Algerians, when they’re so set on forcibly repatriating any Algerian they don’t like the look of, despite the “non-refoulement” requirement of the UN Convention Against Torture. Have a look at the following to see how British judges have attempted to justify returning terror suspects to Algeria despite the refusal of the Algeria government to even sign up for Britain’s worthless “memoranda of understanding” regarding their humane treatment on their return:
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