When he left the UK in early summer of 2001, 31 year-old Ahmad Belbacha never imagined that, thirteen years later and now aged 44, he would be imprisoned in a US military base in Cuba – having never been charged with a crime, or been given a chance to defend himself before a court.
Since 2002, when this mild-mannered man was rounded up by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the CIA, he has faced violent interrogation, physical abuse and incognito detention at the hands of the Americans.
His elderly parents, back in Algiers, fear that they may never get to see their son walk free. Ahmed was unable to say goodbye to his grandmother, who has died in the time he has been detained. He has resorted to at least two hunger strikes in efforts to get the Bush and Obama administrations to honour their decision to release him, after both had carried out in-depth reviews of his case which concluded that Ahmed is not dangerous and poses no risk to the United States. In the 12 years of his detention, he has never been charged or tried for any crime.
Ahmed was born in Algiers in 1969. He comes from a middle class family and is one of eleven children. After high school, Ahmed trained from 1988 to 1989 as an accountant for Algeria’s national oil company, Sonatrach, where he made an impression as a star player on the company’s famous football team. He was then called up for a term of national service. When he finished, Ahmed returned to Sonatrach for approximately four years (until 1997), working in its commercial division.
Then a fateful turn of events changed Ahmed’s quiet life: he was recalled by the army. Shortly afterwards, the major paramilitary 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.
In an effort to lie low Ahmed went to work for his father’s business, rather than returning to Sonatrach. But the threats continued; the GIA visited Ahmed’s family and menaced them as well. Fearing for their safety, Ahmed decided to leave Algeria.
He travelled via France to England, where he headed for Bournemouth and started life as an asylum seeker working in a launderette. He then worked 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, and he even received a personal thank you note and healthy tip from Mr Prescott.
In 2001 Ahmed was invited to the Home Office to discuss his asylum application. Unfortunately, his application for asylum, like many other such claims from Algeria at that time, was refused. He appealed, but the procedure dragged on for months. He was having increasing difficulty finding steady work and greatly feared deportation. He decided to travel to Pakistan, where he could take advantage of free educational programs to study the Koran. He hoped after a few months the economy would be better and his job prospects would improve.
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. After some time in Pakistan, Ahmed’s friend suggested they see what life was like in Afghanistan, a Muslim country. This was well before September 11, and Afghanistan at the time was relatively peaceful.
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, he realised it was not safe for him to stay. He spent 20 days in the Afghan mountains before being taken to the Pakistani border by Afghans.
Ahmed hoped to reach Islamabad, from where he would fly back home to the UK. He did not make it. 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. After this, he was moved to Kandahar, where he underwent further interrogation and suffered beatings and other physical abuse. In March 2002 he was transferred to Guantánamo, where he has been detained ever since.
In 2009, without any of his family or legal representatives being present, an Algerian court passed a 20 year-sentence against Ahmed, for membership of a foreign terrorist group abroad. Despite repeated requests by Reprieve, no evidence has been produced to support the Algerian conviction against Ahmed. This is all too similar to the way in which Ahmed has been let down by the US justice system in Guantánamo.