Rt. Hon David Cameron
10 Downing St
August 13, 2010
Dear Prime Minister:
Re: Ahmed Belbacha, British Resident in Guantánamo at risk of forced Refoulement to Algeria
I write today to propose another break from Labour’s unsound policies in the ‘war on terror’: its refusal to repatriate former Bournemouth resident Ahmed Belbacha from Guantánamo Bay.
Ahmed was cleared by the Guantánamo authorities in the Bush years, which says a great deal about who he is. Before his hellish ordeal in US custody, Ahmed was a well-liked member of the Bournemouth community, where he lived and worked while pursuing an asylum claim. (If you would like a character reference, I suggest you ring up Lord Prescott, who tipped Ahmed lavishly for sterling service at the Swallow hotel during the Labour Party Conference there!) His claim to asylum was well-founded. He had been forced out of Algeria in 1999, when threatened from both sides: an
armed terrorist group (the Group Islamique Armé, or GIA) threatened to kill both him and his family if he remained in the Algerian armed forces; the authorities threatened him if he did not.
Yet when Labour struck its deal to repatriate a number of British residents from Guantánamo, Mr. Belbacha was left off the list. The reasons given were spurious, and had nothing to do with national security: because his asylum appeal was pending when he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Labour said Ahmed had no rightful claim to live in Britain.
The moral poverty of this stance was stunning. It is precisely because Mr. Belbacha was a British resident that British intelligence agents interrogated him in Kandahar, when he was undergoing shocking abuse by the Americans. To this day he breaks down to recall the torture he suffered there. UK agents came again to question him in Guantánamo, during its earliest, most brutal days. We know full well that the British then shared this tainted intelligence with the United States—and that it was used to justify Ahmed’s detention. How, then, can we rightly claim that we do not owe him his
Meanwhile, over the years in Guantánamo, Ahmed has been punished for speaking publicly about his fear of return to Algeria. The risk he faces there is far more serious than when he fled. In late 2009, Algiers sentenced him in absentia to twenty years in prison. The judgment—even the charges—have been kept secret from Mr. Belbacha. But you can be sure that much of the ‘evidence’ is the self-same evidence that was used to justify his illegal detention in the first place.
That the Bush administration discredited that intelligence back in 2006, when it cleared Ahmed for release, makes no difference. There is no question that Ahmed will be targeted for his candour if he is forced back to Algeria.
Recent moves by the US make this matter urgent. In July the US forcibly repatriated an Algerian prisoner, Abdul Aziz Naji. They did so despite Mr. Naji’s vehement insistence that he feared persecution there. US officials have gone on record to state that they intend further forced repatriations of Algerians in the future.
This all leaves Ahmed Belbacha at intolerable risk. But there is another way: community members in Bournemouth who have corresponded with Ahmed in Guantánamo have stated that they are perfectly willing to take Ahmed in. The US has
also implied, in the media, that it might reconsider Ahmed’s fate were another option to appear.
What I propose is hardly a sweeping policy change. It involves just one man. But the ethical consequences of what we do for him—or don’t—are serious. If we want to make up for the mistakes of the last government, and mend fences with the Muslim community, this is just the kind of action we should take.
Ahmed Belbacha belongs, by all rights, in the UK. You have the power to stop his being delivered to torture in Algeria. Britain owes him a plain moral duty, not least because we helped keep him in Guantánamo all these years. It is time to open discussions with the United States to bring him home to Dorset – and I say that as a resident of Dorset myself.
Very sincerely yours,
Clive Stafford Smith
cc. Rt. Hon. William Hague, Foreign & Commonwealth Office