I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.
The message came in February 2007: Prisoner 290 was cleared to leave Guantánamo. Prisoner 290, Ahmed Belbacha, greeted the news not with jubilation, but with fears that he would be returned to his home country, Algeria, against his will. Ahmed was in a difficult position. Born in 1969 in Algiers, to a middle class family, he has ten siblings and would love to be reunited with his family, but Algeria is not a safe place for him.
After high school, he worked as an accountant for the state oil company, Sonatrach, where he also played for the company’s football team. He worked for Sonatrach until 1997, with a break for national service, but when he was called for a second period of national service, he attracted the unwelcome attentions of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), the government’s Islamist opponents, who threatened to kill him if he rejoined the army, and also told him to give up his his job.
Unable to evade those threatening him, he decided he had leave Algeria, and traveled to the UK, where he found work in the southern English seaside town of Bournemouth, working first in a launderette (laundromat), and then at the Swallow Royal Hotel, where he was responsible for cleaning Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s room during the 1999 Labour Party conference, a job that he did so well that the Deputy PM gave him a thank-you note and a tip.
Despite settling in well and working hard, Ahmed’s asylum application had not been resolved since his arrival. In 2001, his request for asylum was turned down, and, after lodging an appeal, he became fearful that he would be deported, and decided to travel to Pakistan, where he would be able to study the Koran, and forget about his troubles for a while.
He left with a friend in June 2001, on a six-month return ticket, but the return part of that journey would remain unused. From Pakistan, at the suggestion of his friend, the two men decided to see what life was like in Afghanistan. They spent a few peaceful months at a guest house, with other Algerians, but then, after 9/11 and the US-led invasion, it became unsafe for Arabs, and he traveled across the mountains, seeking safety back in Pakistan.
Instead, however, he was seized in a small village near the border, held briefly in a local prison with other stray Arabs, and then moved to another prison a day’s drive away, where he first met — and was interrogated by — CIA agents. He was then flown to the US prison at Kandahar airport, where he suffered the physical violence and other abuse to which all the prisoners were subjected.
While he was in Kandahar, in January 2002, his asylum appeal in the UK was denied, the great irony being that it was turned down primarily because he didn’t turn up for the hearing. At the time, no one knew that Ahmed was in US custody, and in fact the identities of most of the prisoners in Guantánamo were unknown for many years.
In March 2002, Ahmed was transferred to Guantánamo, where he endured the systemic abuse, and the torture regime that was set up between the fall of 2002 and the summer of 2004, and where, after Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court case in June 2004, which allowed the prisoners to meet lawyers and submit habeas corpus petitions, he finally met Clive Stafford Smith, the director of of Reprieve, and other lawyers working with the London-based legal action charity.
And so to February 2007, when the US military cleared Ahmed for release, finding that he did not pose a threat to the United States, and had no useful intelligence. However, as one chapter came to an end, another began: Ahmed’s struggle, from behind the wire at Guantánamo, to prevent his captors from forcibly repatriating him. Although he secured an injunction preventing the US government from sending him home against his will, the British government refused to help him, and the injunctions and stays that Ahmed and other prisoners had secured came under assault in the US courts, collapsing in September 2009.
Just two months later, Ahmed’s fears about Algeria were confirmed when he was convicted in absentia by a court, and given a 20-year prison sentence for belonging to an “overseas terrorist group.” His lawyers were unable to find out exactly what he was supposed to have done — and concluded that it was a show trial, designed to punish him for voicing his criticisms of the Algerian regime.
Because of this sentence, Ahmed has been protected from being forcibly repatriated by the US government, unlike two other Algerians, returned home in July 2010 and January 2011, one of whom — Abdul Aziz Naji, an amputee — recently received a three-year sentence after another show trial.
However, no other country has yet agreed to take Ahmed. Under President Obama, dozens of prisoners who could not be safely repatriated were taken in by other countries, but not Ahmed, despite Reprieve, Amnesty International, Cageprisoners and other NGOs working on his behalf. Ironically, citizens in two countries whose governments don’t want to take him in have offered him homes — a Bournemouth resident, and the people of Amherst, Massachusetts, who, as I discussed last week, passed a town resolution calling for Congress to drop its ban on allowing any cleared prisoner to be resettled in the US, and offered to house him and look after him — but still Ahmed waits, five years and three months after he was first told that he could leave Guantánamo, for some kind country to rescue him from his long and unacceptable detention.
Note: To support the work of “No More Guantánamos,” the organization calling for cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated to be settled in the United States, please contact Nancy Talanian. Please also sign this petition to Louis Susman, the US Ambassador to the UK, calling for Ahmed Belbacha and Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, to be freed in the UK.
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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Jane E Weisner wrote:
Andy, I live in Amherst, Massachusetts and Ahmed Belbacha is more than welcome. President Obama and Homeland Security are wrong to stop Ahmed from living in Amherst. Amherst is a stronghold of Progressive, Liberal Democrats the kind that elect Democrats to Congress and voted 95% for Martha Coakley and now work hard for Elizabeth Warren. We are taken for granted by the Democratic Party and shunned by this administration when we chose to do the right thing for an innocent man. Amherst is a hot bed of progressive ideas not terrorism. Let Ahmed Belbacha live in Amherst, Massachusetts where he is welcome.
Yay! Great to hear from you, Jane. We need to make the campaign to welcome Guantanamo’s refugees into communities like Amherst into a major campaign to follow the Presidential election.
Jane E Weisner wrote:
Andy, Let me know what we can do to help Ahmed move to Amherst other than petition President Obama because I’ve done that.
We need to try and build support from lots of other Americans, Jane, and push for it as a major campaign in january 2013. I’m starting to try and get some people interested …
Zilma Nunes wrote:
Andy , your job is a heavy cross . You ‘re a real christian…
Thanks, Zilma. That’s an interesting way of putting it!
Neil Mckenna wrote:
This isn’t really on the point of Ahmed Belbacha, Andy, it’s about asylum status. As I understand it – let’s just take Iraq – through the war of the last decade there has been no right of asylum, or no assisted asylum, despite a big chunk of the population, millions and millions, fleeing the country, straight into neighbouring countries. As I understand it, eg. Scandinavian countries took in some thousands but Britain took in a handful and an Iraqi cold no longer claim asylum in this country by dint of being from and living in Iraq. Am I right on this? Have you written a piece on it ? Cheers, Neil.
I know that what happened early on in the Iraq war was that Britain was taking in lots of Kurdish refugees, but that a few years in the government started declaring that Iraq was safe and started forcibly returning them. I wrote an article 4 years ago, “UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices,” but I haven’t kept up with developments: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/03/30/uk-government-deports-60-iraqi-kurds-no-one-notices/
You could check out Refugee Action: http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/
Neil Mckenna wrote:
Thanks Andy. Will take a look at the article and the Refugee Action website.
Hawa Bint Yusuf wrote:
Thanks, Hawa. Good to hear from you.
[…] (see PDF), and was told that he had been cleared for release in February 2007. He has since been fighting to prevent his return to Algeria, where he was tried in absentia in 2010 and given a 20-year sentence in a show trial, and awaits […]
Just read your article. Have been following Ahmed’s story since reading about him in the Metro in 2009 and have repeatedly written (to no avail) to the FCO and Downing St re their appalling decision to deny him refuge here? Is there no support amongst British folk to bring Ahmed back here aside from the couple who offered him a home with them?
I contacted CagePrisoners a couple of years ago who were very dismissive and insisted that even his lawyers had given up on him, which I found very disturbing.
I would love nothing more than to have him come back home to Britain.
Thanks for your interest. I’m sure Ahmed would be delighted to know of your interest. I’ve heard nothing lately, sadly, although I did liaise with his lawyers at Reprieve before publishing this.
[…] even the nominal representation of Mr. Fried — the last five Tunisians, five Algerians (see here, here and here), four Syrians, four Afghans, a Saudi, the last Palestinian, the last Tajik, the last […]
[…] In Guantanamo since March 2002, Ahmed Bin Saleh Belbacha has been cleared for release since 2007. But he fears being repatriated to his native Algeria, where he has been given a 20-year absentia sentence for membership in an “overseas terrorist group.” His lawyers say it was a show trial. […]
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