Since the US Supreme Court ruled on July 17 that there was no legal obstacle to the involuntary repatriation of Algerians at Guantánamo, and one man, Abdul Aziz Naji, was promptly flown back to Algiers, opponents of a ruling that saw the Supreme Court playing as fast and loose with the UN Convention Against Torture as the Obama administration, which had pushed for his repatriation, have been deeply concerned about the administration’s plans to deport five other Algerians against their will. These men are Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed, Nabil Hadjarab, Motai Saib, Djamel Ameziane and Ahmed Belbacha, and they have all stated that they would rather remain at Guantánamo than be sent back to their home country, where they fear both the government and terrorist groups who might wish to recruit them.
Bin Mohammed won his habeas corpus petition last November, but was so scared of returning to Algeria that the judge in his case, Judge Gladys Kessler of the District Court in Washington D.C., tried to prevent his enforced return, eventually losing that appeal in the Conservative-dominated D.C. Circuit Court, and then losing again on July 16, when the Supreme Court also refused to act on his behalf. When Abdul Aziz Naji’s appeal was denied by the Supreme Court the following day, the last obstacle to the enforced repatriation not only of bin Mohammed, but also of Nabil Hadjarab, Motai Saib, Djamel Ameziane and Ahmed Belbacha was also removed.
As the legal action charity Reprieve reports today, “the Algerian prosecutor’s office reported on Monday that Abdul Aziz Naji was charged with an unspecified offence and is now under ‘judicial supervision.’” This may well mean that he will now undergo long months of horrible uncertainty as the government prepares to try him, even though, in the cases of other Algerians who returned voluntarily between July 2008 and January 2010, no trial has resulted in a conviction.
However, as Human Rights Watch noted after Naji’s repatriation:
Although the Algerian detainees who were returned voluntarily to Algeria have not reported serious abuse, this should not be the basis for determining how future returnees will be treated. Some of the men who returned voluntarily were elderly, in ill health, or had wound up at Guantánamo as cases of mistaken identity. Some of the remaining detainees, though never accused of any crime, might be perceived by the Algerian government as more dangerous than those who previously returned.
Senior counterterrorism counsel Andrea Prasow added, “The US needs to consider the individual circumstances of each detainee before repatriation. Someone who would rather remain at Guantánamo than go home should at least be given the chance to explain why in a proper legal setting.”
While there are valid concerns for all the men’s safety and well-being if returned to Algeria, Ahmed Belbacha is particularly vulnerable, as he was tried in absentia in November 2009 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, for what his lawyers can only conclude was the crime of speaking out about his fears of being repatriated. As Reprieve explained, “In a disgraceful show trial, the court sentenced Ahmed to 20 years in prison for belonging to an ‘overseas terrorist group.’ Despite repeated requests and extensive investigation, Reprieve’s lawyers have been unable to discover what exactly Ahmed is supposed to have done. No evidence has been produced to support his ‘conviction,’ which appears to be retaliation against Ahmed for speaking out about human rights abuses in Algeria.”
Human Rights Watch has stated that “Under Algerian law, Belbacha has the right to a new trial upon his return to Algeria,” but after his conviction in November it is unsurprising that Belbacha does not trust the Algerian government to treat him fairly if he is returned. As Reprieve noted, “He faces a lengthy illegal prison term, torture, and persecution if returned to Algeria.”
In an urgent appeal, Reprieve has called on the governments of Britain, Ireland and Luxembourg to offer Belbacha a new home. His lawyer, Tara Murray, stated:
We know from bitter experience that Guantánamo prisoners cannot trust “diplomatic assurances” from rights-abusing countries like Algeria, and the Obama Administration should have known better. The US has betrayed Abdul Aziz Naji and we are fighting to ensure that our client Ahmed Belbacha does not suffer the same fate. Algeria’s government has a clear grudge against Ahmed and cannot be trusted. Ahmed has repeatedly pleaded for help and we are running out of time. Will the governments of Luxembourg, Ireland and the UK hear his pleas?
Ahmed Belbacha’s appeal for the British government to offer him a new home is long-standing, as he lived and worked here for nearly two years from 1999 to 2001, when, with his asylum claim ongoing, he decided to take an ill-advised holiday in Pakistan. A resident in Bournemouth, where he lived, has offered him a room, but the British government has been so indifferent to his fate that Reprieve and other organizations, including Amnesty International and Cageprisoners, sought help from Ireland and Luxembourg as well. He has also been offered a home in Amherst, Massachusetts, although a law passed by Congress, banning any Guantánamo prisoners from being brought to the US mainland except to face a trial, has prevented him from taking up this offer.
Last week, the London Guantánamo Campaign prepared a letter to foreign secretary William Hague asking him to secure Mr. Belbacha’s return to the UK. A slightly amended version of this letter is posted below (which readers can cut and paste), but please feel free to change it as you see fit. The letter can be emailed to the foreign secretary (email address here), or sent to: William Hague MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, London, SW1A 2AH.
Dear Foreign Secretary,
I am writing to you as a matter of urgency, concerning the case of Ahmed Belbacha, a British resident who has been held at Guantánamo Bay for over eight years.
Mr. Belbacha is a 40-year old Algerian who lived in the UK for nearly two years, from 1999 to 2001, having fled Algeria where his life was at risk. While travelling in Pakistan, he was captured and taken to Guantánamo Bay. Cleared for release in 2007, he has chosen to remain at Guantánamo Bay, rather than face the risk to his life in Algeria. This risk was compounded in November 2009 when he was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for “membership of a terrorist organisation overseas”. No evidence was produced to back this up.
On 17 July, a US Supreme Court ruling resulted in an Algerian national, Abdul Aziz Naji, being forcibly repatriated to Algeria, where he has been indicted on unspecified charges, and is subject to “judicial supervision”. His return, the first forced repatriation under the Obama administration, was strongly condemned by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. There is a strong likelihood that in sending Mr. Naji back to Algeria, the US government has breached the principle of “non-refoulement” in the UN Convention Against Torture.
This ruling paves the way for the forced return of Ahmed Belbacha.
Mr. Belbacha’s return to the UK was not sought by the previous government. However, we maintain that, given his ties to this country, he should be allowed to return here on humanitarian grounds. Such a move would provide him with a safe haven, and act as a gesture of cooperation with the US in its efforts to find countries for prisoners who cannot be safely repatriated, thereby helping President Obama to close the prison. Several other European countries have taken this action, providing residence to non-nationals as a means of assisting the US.
I urge you to take urgent action for Ahmed Belbacha to ensure a safe end to his wholly illegal ordeal over the past eight years.
I look forward to your response,
The London Guantánamo Campaign also recommended that supporters send the letter to their MP (find your local MP via TheyWorkForYou), and also to write to the Algerian Embassy and the Permanent Mission of Algeria at the United Nations, asking them not to accept the forced repatriation of prisoners who do not wish to return to Algeria, and to ensure that prisoners who are returned are treated fairly.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Cross-posted on Eurasia Review.
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