A refugee from Algeria, Belbacha arrived in the UK in 1999, after receiving death threats from militant Islamists who objected to the fact that he worked for a state-owned oil company, and settled in Bournemouth, where he worked in a hotel. Captured on holiday in Pakistan in 2001, while his application for asylum in the UK was still pending, he was sold to US forces, transferred to a US-run prison in Afghanistan and then sent to Guantánamo. In 2003, his application for asylum was turned down by the British government, but he was granted leave to remain in the UK instead. Unfortunately, by this time, he had already been held in Guantánamo for a year, subjected, like the majority of detainees held in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, to chronic abuse and groundless allegations extracted under duress, which later evaporated like the mirages they always were.
In February this year, as the paranoid mist conjured up by the US administration dissipated, he was cleared for release by a review board at Guantánamo, but was told that the British government would not accept his return to the UK. This led the Americans to approve his release to Algeria instead, where he is not only at risk from the militants from whom he fled in the first place, but has also been told that the Algerian intelligence services – the notorious and semi-autonomous Department of Investigations and Security (DRS) – “cannot ensure that he will be safe – from their own personnel.”
On 4 September, I received the following reply to my letter, which I reproduce in full:
Dear Andy Worthington,
Thank you for your email of 6 August about Guantánamo Bay. I have been asked to reply.
You may be aware of the recent decision to seek the release from Guantánamo Bay and return to the UK of five men. I should stress that the UK Government believes that the circumstances in which detainees are currently held indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay are unacceptable. We believe that the detention facility at Guantánamo should be closed. The UK Government, therefore, welcomes recent steps taken by the US Government to reduce the numbers of those detained at Guantánamo Bay and to move towards the closure of the detention facility. These steps have included an increasing emphasis on engagement with third countries over the transfer and resettlement of those detained.
The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have reviewed the UK Government's approach to a group of individuals who were lawfully resident in the UK prior to their detention; in light of these ongoing developments, our long-held policy aim of securing the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and the need to maintain national security. They have decided to request the release and return of five detainees who have links to the UK as former residents, having been granted refugee status, indefinite leave or exceptional leave to remain prior to their detention: Mr Shaker Aamer, Mr Jamil El-Banna, Mr Omar Deghayes, Mr Binyam Mohamed and Mr Abdennour Sameur. On 7 August, the Foreign Secretary wrote to US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to formally make this request.
This decision is limited to those who were lawfully resident in the UK prior to their detention. We believe we have identified all of those to whom this relates who are currently detained at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Ahmed Belbacha does not fall into this category.
Discussions with the US Government may take some time and we cannot guarantee success. On the question of detainees being returned to their country of origin, the US authorities have said that they require assurances from the government of the country concerned that detainees will not be mistreated before considering them for return.
The UK Government will, of course, continue to take all necessary measures to maintain national security. Should these men be returned to the UK, the same security considerations and actions will apply to them as would apply to any other foreign national in this country.
Whilst the UK Government does not normally make representations of this kind, the decision to do so in these cases arises out of the exceptional nature of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and the UK Government's desire to take action to help bring about its closure and to reduce the numbers of those detained there.
Counter Terrorism Policy Department
When I’ve recovered from my disappointment at the meanness of spirit expressed on behalf of the Foreign Office by Mr. Jankowski, I intend to write another letter, explaining how distressing I find it that because, technically, Mr. Belbacha was not a British resident at the time of his capture, this innocent man, who has been through five and a half years of extraordinarily bleak treatment at the hands of his US captors, will not be rescued from the prospect of further ill-treatment in the country of his birth because the government has turned its back on the decision it made to welcome him to stay in Britain while he was suffering in Guantánamo. This rather makes a mockery of the supposedly principled stance made by Gordon Brown’s new administration when it requested the return of the other five men, and does little to persuade me that the government is as concerned with justice as it is with PR.
I can only hope, from the careful references to the “unacceptable” nature of Guantánamo and the forthcoming discussions with the US that “may take some time” and that have no “guarantee of success,” that the government will do rather more to secure the release of the five other British detainees than they have with Ahmed Belbacha. In the meantime, I encourage readers to send their own letter of complaint regarding the callous dismissal of Mr. Belbacha to David Miliband at: email@example.com. It may take a month, but you too may get a reply from the Counter Terrorism Policy Department.