The plight of Ahmed Belbacha, the forgotten Briton in Guantánamo: despite court order, the US government tries to return him to torture in Algeria
October 8, 2008
Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent over 30 prisoners in Guantánamo, today condemns the US government for its underhand efforts to send cleared prisoner Ahmed Belbacha back to Algeria, where he is at risk of torture.
In a visit at Guantánamo last week, Mr. Belbacha told Reprieve staff attorney Cori Crider that the authorities at Guantánamo had recently attempted to persuade him to sign papers authorizing his release from Guantánamo, in spite of a court order preventing his forcible repatriation.
In a statement from Guantánamo, Mr. Belbacha said:
“Very recently, the Americans tried to send me back to Algeria, in complete defiance of a court order. I have repeatedly told the US that I don’t want to go back to Algeria. I claimed asylum from Algeria in Britain years ago.
“How can they do this? How am I still fighting, even with a court order to protect me, to stay in Guantánamo? They have held me here without charge or trial for almost seven years. Now that they admit I am no threat, why do they insist upon trying to send me somewhere where I am clearly not safe?
“I am very afraid the US will stop at nothing, not even a court order, to get rid of me. Where are the world’s countries that say Guantánamo must be closed and is a disgrace? We are in terrible danger here unless someone helps.”
On behalf of Reprieve, Cori Crider said:
“This is a disgraceful state of affairs. Mr. Belbacha was cleared for release from Guantánamo nearly two years ago, but for the last 16 months we have been fighting in the US courts to prevent the US government from forcibly returning him to Algeria, where he has legitimate fears that he will be tortured. The behaviour of the US authorities is despicable, and shows that they will stop at nothing to cover up their mistakes, even if this leads to the torture – or worse – of an innocent man.”
“Mr. Belbacha’s ongoing plight also reflects badly on the British government. Given that he cannot return to Algeria, it is nothing short of callous for the British government to refuse to accept his return to the UK, where he lived and worked for two years. If the UK continues to refuse to accept him, we will be obliged to seek out a third country to take him. How will the British Government explain its indifference if a country where he has no history and no friends agrees to take him instead?”
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.
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:
The background to Ahmed Belbacha’s story
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 for release from Guantánamo. Unfortunately, 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.
Nevertheless, 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, he has explained how his fears and his isolation have made him feel “mentally sick.”
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, five 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.
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 Guantánamo 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.’
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