The forgotten Briton in Guantánamo

September 25, 2008

Image of a man entering a dark room

A former footballer, Ahmed Belbacha was born in Algiers in 1969. He left his homeland in 1999, after receiving death threats from militants because he worked for a government-run oil company, and sought asylum in the UK.

Ahmed lived and worked in Bournemouth, first at a laundry and then at the Swallow Royal Hotel, where he was responsible for cleaning John Prescott’s room during the 1999 Labour Party conference. For his diligence, he received a thank-you note from the Deputy Prime Minister and a tip for his service.

In June 2001, with his asylum appeal still pending, Ahmed took a holiday in Pakistan, where he was seized and sold for a bounty to US forces. After being interrogated by the CIA, he was moved to the US prison at Kandahar airport, where he suffered severe abuse, and was flown to Guantánamo in February 2002.

In 2006, a military review board found that Ahmed did not pose a threat to the United States or its allies, and in February 2007 he was approved his release from Guantánamo. Unfortunately, however, the British government refused to accept his return to the UK. In June 2003, while Ahmed was in Guantánamo and unable to help with his own case, his asylum appeal had been denied. Although it was likely that he would have been granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK, he was, of course, unable to apply for it from Guantánamo, and the British government therefore washed its hands of him. When the government requested the return of five British residents in August 2007, Ahmed was not one of them.

Since last June, appeals have been passing through the US court system to prevent Ahmed’s return to Algeria, where he faces the very real risk of torture by the Algerian security services, and death threats from the militants who forced his escape from his homeland in the first place. Despite being held in isolation for at least 22 hours a day, Ahmed has stated that he would rather stay in Guantánamo than return to Algeria.

Ahmed’s willingness to stay in Guantánamo rather then be repatriated demonstrates, with alarming clarity, how much he fears being tortured in Algeria, but his seemingly endless isolation in Guantánamo, combined with his constant fears of repatriation, have contributed to a serious decline in his mental health. In the last few months, it has been revealed that Ahmed has been put on suicide watch after attempting suicide, and in recent visits with his lawyers from Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, he has explained how his fears and his isolation have made him feel “mentally sick.”

Reprieve remains desperately concerned about Ahmed’s plight. Although the court battles in the United States have, to date, prevented his forcible repatriation to Algeria, it is impossible to know how much longer his repatriation can be prevented.

The US government is clamouring to repatriate cleared prisoners (to countries where they face the risk of torture) as part of its ongoing attempts to scale down Guantánamo’s population. Since July, four Algerian prisoners have been returned to Algeria, where their fate is uncertain. Human rights observers have long established that foreign nationals returned to Algeria face a legal process that is more akin to Russian roulette than a fair trial. Imprisoned on their return, some prisoners are made to produce “confessions” that are later used against them, while others are subsequently released. There appears to be no way of working out how these decisions are made, and the whole process remains opaque.

Sadly, for Ahmed, the British government is still maintaining that it has no responsibility for him. Technically this is correct, but Reprieve, and Ahmed’s many supporters in other human rights groups, believe that, because of Ahmed’s prior connection with the UK, the British government should call for his return. The only other option is for his lawyers to seek out a third country prepared to accept him, which would show the British in an extremely unfavourable light.

Reprieve also believes that the British government has a moral duty to accept Ahmed’s return, as agents of the British intelligence services were responsible for interrogating him while he was held in the US prison at Kandahar airport in January 2002, in conditions that failed miserably to conform to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. Reprieve believes that, having been responsible for interrogating Ahmed in such dire circumstances, the British government’s refusal to accept further responsibility for him is shockingly hypocritical.

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For further information, please contact Andy Worthington at Reprieve’s Press Office on 020 7427 1099 or email: Andy@reprieve.org.uk.

Note for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.

Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves:

• representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.

• working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty.

• conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secretdetention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

ReprievePO Box 52742LondonEC4P 4WSTel: 020 7353 4640Fax: 020 7353 4641Email: info@reprieve.org.ukWebsite: www.reprieve.org.uk

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guaranteeRegistered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England)Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YHPatrons: Alan Bennett, Martha Lane Fox, Sir John Mortimer, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner