By Andy Worthington
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 U.K., 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.K. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., calling for Ahmed Belbacha and Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, to be freed in the U.K.