Ahmed Belbacha is an Algerian national who lived in England for two and a half years. He is in his eighth 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 feels he has no choice but to wait in Guantánamo—even in Camp Six, which is the prison’s most grim isolation wing—until another country offers him refuge.
Ahmed 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, 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 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.
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 received a personal thank you note and a healthy tip from Mr Prescott.
In 2001 Ahmed was invited to the Home Office to discuss his asylum application. Unfortunately, his application for asylum 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 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 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. He was then moved to Kandahar, where he underwent further interrogation and suffered beatings and other physical abuse. In March 2002 he was transferred to Guantánamo. He has remained there ever since.
Meanwhile, in January 2002, while Ahmed was in Guantánamo, 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, as the US kept Guantanamo prisoners' identities secret.
In February 2007, the US military cleared Ahmed for release, finding he was not dangerous and had no information about terrorism, but more than two years on, he 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.
Ahmed’s fears about Algeria were confirmed by an alarming ‘conviction’ delivered in absentia by an Algerian court in November 2009. In a disgraceful show trial, where no lawyer was appointed to defend Ahmed, the court sentenced him to 20 years in prison for belonging to an ‘overseas terrorist group’. Despite repeated requests and extensive investigation, Reprieve’s lawyers have been unable to discover what exactly Ahmed is supposed to have done. No evidence has been produced to support his ‘conviction’, which appears to be retaliation against Ahmed for speaking out about the inhumane treatment he would be subjected to if sent to Algeria.
Ahmed had been protected by an injunction barring the US government from repatriating him against his will, but a US judge dissolved the injunction in February. Reprieve immediately requested the decision be reversed, citing the US Supreme Court’s ongoing consideration of a related case, Kiyemba v Obama (Kiyemba II), in which it was decided that US courts could not prevent the Obama Administration from forcibly repatriating prisoners to countries where they face persecution. Worryingly, on Monday 22nd March, the Supreme Court decided not to review Kiyemba II; Reprieve then submitted another plea to DC’s federal district court on 24th March, followed by an emergency motion over the Easter weekend following Holder’s announcement.
Ahmed’s plight, together with his gentle nature, has attracted private offers of help. He has been given a room in a flat by a Bournemouth resident, and the Massachusetts town of Amherst has offered him refuge in defiance of Congress. So far, however, no government has come forward to help.