After six months of President Obama’s troubled efforts to close Guantánamo Bay, Reprieve urges Ireland to help by offering Ahmed Belbacha a home.

July 20, 2009

President Obama pledged to close Guantánamo Bay within a year. Six months later, just eleven prisoners have been released and around 228 remain. At this rate it will take him ten years to close the prison, or, worse, he will fail.

Reprieve urges the Republic of Ireland to show support for President Obama’s difficult task by offering Ahmed Belbacha (pictured) a home.

Ahmed Belbacha is an Algerian national and former British resident in his seventh year of imprisonment without charge in Guantánamo Bay. The tragic irony of Ahmed’s situation is that, from the US  military’s perspective, he could leave Guantánamo tomorrow. But Ahmed so fears what awaits him in Algeria that he has opted to wait in Guantánamo—even in Camp Six, the prison’s most grim isolation  wing—until another country offers him refuge.

Clare Algar, executive director of Reprieve, said: “In January, we were delighted by President Obama’s commitment to close Guantánamo Bay. Six months on, we need Ireland’s help in holding him to his  word. We are urgently concerned about those men who, like Ahmed, remain in Guantanamo simply because they cannot safely return home. Ahmed Belbacha desperately needs Ireland to come to his  rescue.”

Ahmed Belbacha was born in Algiers in 1969. He comes from a middle class family with eleven children. After high school, Ahmed trained from 1988 to 1989 as an accountant for Algeria’s premier oil  company, Sonatrach. He then completed a term of national service. When he finished, Ahmed returned to Sonatrach for approximately four years, working in its commercial division. A keen footballer,  Ahmed was also one of the star players on Sonatrach’s famous amateur team.

Then a fateful turn of events changed Ahmed’s quiet life: he was recalled by the army. Shortly afterwards, the major terrorist group in Algeria—the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA)—began to threaten  Ahmed’s life. The GIA’s stated mission was to overthrow the secular Algerian regime and install an Islamist one in its place. They threatened to murder Ahmed if he rejoined the army, and told him to quit  his job at Sonatrach, as it was a government company. These were no empty threats: the GIA were notorious for killing people after their military service, and had carried out violence against Sonatrach  employees. With trepidation, Ahmed finished his service a second time, knowing he would be a marked man. He hoped to lay low afterwards, so instead of working for Sonatrach, Ahmed went home to his  father’s business and to another small company in Algiers.

But the threats continued; the GIA visited Ahmed’s family and menaced them as well. So Ahmed obtained a visa in early 1999, left Algeria and travelled via France to England. He headed for Bournemouth  and started his first job in the UK at the Sunlight Laundry.

He then worked temporarily at the Swallow Royal Hotel while the 1999 Labour Party conference was taking place. Ahmed was in charge of cleaning Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s room during the conference. He even received a personal thank you note from John Prescott and a healthy tip.

In Bournemouth Ahmed stayed in a hostel where a number of Algerian refugees lived. He took English courses at a local college and learnt enough of the language to get by. In July 2000 he made an asylum application and at the same time he asked for help from Bournemouth Borough Council. The council paid for him to continue living at the refugee hostel and he took a job at a Bournemouth hotel in February 2001.

Ahmed is a serious person but never showed any interest in terrorism and was not particularly religiously orientated. He worked hard and liked playing football.

He was invited to the Home Office to discuss his asylum application in April 2001. Unfortunately, his application for asylum was refused.

Around this time Ahmed was having increasing difficulty finding steady work. He became depressed, spending more and more time by himself. He told a friend in Bournemouth that he wanted to go and study in Pakistan, to take a break, then come back to England. He hoped after a few months the economy would be better and his job prospects would improve. Many Muslims at the time went to Pakistan to study the Koran, as education was free. So Ahmed left the UK for Pakistan with a friend in June 2001. He had a return ticket to come back six months later, to pursue his asylum appeal.

Once in Pakistan, Ahmed’s friend suggested they see what life was like in Afghanistan, a Muslim country. This was well before September 11. Afghanistan at the time was relatively peaceful, though there was some fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Ahmed crossed into Afghanistan and spent a few months there in an Algerian guest house.

After the US invaded and the Northern Alliance began rounding up Arabs, Ahmed realized it was not safe for him to stay. He spent 20 days in the Afghan mountains before being taken to the Pakistani border by Afghanis. Ahmed hoped to make it to Islamabad, from where he would fly back home to the UK.

He did not make it there. After crossing the border from Afghanistan in December 2001, Ahmed was seized in a small village and taken briefly to a border prison. He was then transferred to another prison six or seven hours’ drive away, where he was held for about two weeks and interrogated by the CIA. He was then moved to Kandahar where he underwent further interrogation and was beaten and physically abused. In March 2002 he was transferred to Guantánamo. He has been there ever since.

Meanwhile, in January 2002, while Ahmed was in Guantánamo, and unbeknownst to him, 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.

On February 22, 2007, Reprieve received the following e-mail from the US Military:

Dear Counsel for [Ahmed Belbacha] ISN 290

[Y]our client has been approved to leave Guantanamo, subject to the process for making appropriate diplomatic arrangements for his departure.

Almost two years on, Ahmed remains a prisoner. The Americans no longer want to hold him. But, as he cannot safely return to Algeria, the question is: where will Ahmed go? To date, the UK government has refused to help him. He would dearly love to build a life in the Republic of Ireland and Reprieve asks that the Irish government give him a chance to begin again there.

Notes 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 Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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