I’m delighted to report that Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian prisoner, has been released from Guantánamo. It’s always good news when a prisoner is released, and in Ahmed Belbacha’s case it is particularly reassuring, as I — and many other people around the world — have been following his case closely for many years. I first wrote about him in 2006, for my book The Guantánamo Files, and my first article mentioning him was back in June 2007. I have written about his case, and called for his release, on many occasions since.
Ahmed was cleared for release from Guantánamo twice — by a military review board under the Bush administration in February 2007, and by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, appointed by the president shortly after taking office in 2009.
Nevertheless, he was terrified of returning home, and, from 2007 onwards, tried to prevent his forced repatriation in the US courts. This seems to have annoyed the authorities in Algeria, as, in 2009, he was tried and sentenced in absentia, receiving a 20-year sentence for membership of a foreign terrorist group abroad. As his lawyers at Reprieve noted, despite repeated requests, no evidence was produced to support the conviction.
Although the US courts eventually refused to accept calls by Ahmed and other prisoners to prevent their enforced repatriation — or their transfer to other countries — the US authorities were concerned about Ahmed’s in absentia conviction as long ago as 2010, when they “expressed some concern” about repatriating him, as the Washington Post reported.
Fortunately, as Ahmed’s lawyers at Reprieve noted on his release, “The transfer is in accordance with his and his family’s wishes, and marks the end of a dreadful 12 years for Mr. Belbacha.” Reprieve also noted that they expect that “the efforts so far made by the Algerian authorities to end this injustice will now continue, so that Ahmed can return to his family as soon as possible,” adding, “His parents have been deeply worried and confused by the continued detention of their son, and Ahmed has repeatedly told his lawyers that his main concern is now to get home and help his brothers to look after them.” Sadly, during his 12 years of imprisonment without charge or trial, his grandmother died without him having had the opportunity to speak to her.
Reprieve’s lawyers also noted that they “have met with representatives of the Algerian government, and have been assured that Ahmed will be treated fairly and humanely on his return to the country” — worries based not only on his in absentia conviction, but also on the fact that the intelligence services can and do hold people (including returned Guantánamo prisoners) for 12 days on their return, and also because of the harassment to which other released Algerians have been subjected — and, in the case of Abdul Aziz Naji, returned in July 2010, the three-year sentence he received after another dubious trial.
A gentle character, and just 5′ 3″ tall, Ahmed is 44 years old, but was just 32 when he was first seized and sold to the US military in Pakistan. He is one of eleven children, from a middle class family, and after high school he trained as an accountant for Algeria’s national oil company, Sonatrach, where he was also a star player on the company’s well-known football team. After undertaking his national service, he returned to Sonatrach, working in its commercial division.
However, as his lawyers at Reprieve explained, “his life was dramatically changed by the events of the civil war, when his army service and role at Sonatrach brought him to the attention of local militant Islamic groups.” After receiving threats against himself, and his family, Ahmed decided to seek asylum in Britain, travelling via France, and heading for Bournemouth, where he worked in a launderette, and then at the Swallow Royal Hotel. He was there during the 1999 Labour Party Conference, and was in charge of cleaning the room of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, a job he did so well that Prescott left him a thank you note and a tip.
Nevertheless, Ahmed was unsuccessful in his asylum application, and was turn down in 2001. He appealed, but, as Reprieve described it, “the procedure dragged on for months,” and, because 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,” in the hope that, after six months away, the UK economy “would be better and his job prospects would improve.”
Ahmed and a friend flew to Pakistan in June 2001, and, after some time there, decided to pay a visit to Afghanistan, staying for a while in an Algerian guest house.
While he was there, however, the 9/11 attacks took place, and then the US-led invasion began. As Reprieve noted, when the Northern Alliance began rounding up Arabs, he realised it was no longer safe in Afghanistan, and, like many others, travelled to Pakistan through the mountains, hoping to reach Islamabad and to fly home.
Instead, he “was seized in a small village and taken briefly to a border prison,” and “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 taken to Kandahar, to the US military’s first major prison in Afghanistan, where abuse was widespread, and in March 2002 he was flown to Guantánamo, where he endured twelve years of abuse and injustice.
Last year, Ahmed responded to the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo by joining the prison-wide hunger strike that reminded the world of the men’s plight, and forced President Obama to promise to resume releasing prisoners.
It is fair to say, I believe, that without the majority of the men embarking on a prison-wide hunger strike, Ahmed might still have been waiting in Guantánamo for his release.
As Reprieve added in their press release, “Ahmed now needs to be returned to the safety and security of his home, as soon as possible, so that he can start to recover from the dreadful experience of the last 12 years in prison.”
Commenting on Ahmed’s release, Polly Rossdale, the deputy director of Reprieve’s Guantánamo team, said, “Ahmed’s last 12 years show how dangerous it is for us all if the time-tested procedures of open justice are disregarded. The US Government was happy to arrest and detain Ahmed for over a decade, without ever giving him a chance to answer their unfounded accusations. We applaud the efforts now being made — however late they come — to right some small portion of this wrong, and get prisoners home who should never have been forced to endure such a nightmare in the first place.”
Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, also issued a statement after Ahmed’s release. “We greatly appreciate the close cooperation of the government of Algeria in receiving one of its nationals from Guantánamo,” he stated, adding, “Today’s transfer represents another step in our ongoing efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo.”
Paul Lewis, Cliff Sloan’s counterpart at the Pentagon, added, “The transfer of this Algerian national from Guantánamo Bay is another step forward in our effort to reduce the population and close the detention facility responsibly,” adding, “I would like to thank Special Envoy Sloan’s office and the many others who worked on this transfer. Their work is greatly appreciated.”
Although Ahmed Belbacha has now been released, 75 other men cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force — 55 Yemenis and 20 men from other countries — are still held. Their release is just as urgent as Ahmed Belbacha’s, and I hope to hear soon that some of them have also been freed. The administration needs to realize as soon as possible that endless prevarication on releasing the Yemenis — because of security fears about their homeland — is both counter-productive and cruel. After all, what is worse than indefinite detention without charge or trial? The answer? Indefinite detention without charge or trial after a presidential task force approved your release.
It is four years and two months since these men were told that the US no longer wished to hold them, and that arrangements were being made for their transfer. How much longer must they wait?
This article originally appeared on andyworthington.co.uk on March 14, 2014. Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.