Coalition has adopted Labour policy on Guantanamo, says Reprieve

Press Release from Reprieve
16 September 2010

As Foreign Secretary William Hague pledges to re-establish a central role for human rights in British foreign policy, the Coalition has adopted Labour policy on Guantánamo Bay by refusing to help former UK resident Ahmed Belbacha.

Reprieve has received a letter from the Foreign Secretary insisting that the British government is under no obligation to help former British resident Ahmed Belbacha, a cleared Guantánamo prisoner now facing forced repatriation to torture in Algeria, because the Coalition is adopting Labour’s 2007 policy on Guantánamo Bay.

The decision appears to run counter to the Foreign Secretary’s speech this week in which he stepped up Britain’s commitment to human rights and promised: “Where problems have arisen that have affected the UK’s moral standing we will deal with them patiently and clearly. We will act on the lessons learnt, and tackle the difficult issues we currently face head on.”

One of the more pressing “difficult issues” is surely Guantánamo’s military prison, which remains open despite President Obama’s initial pledge to close it by January this year. Dozens of prisoners were cleared for release several years ago, but are either unwilling or unable to return to their native countries due to threats of further torture and imprisonment. It is clear that President Obama cannot close the prison without significant help from his allies – help that Britain’s Coalition government appears unwilling to give.

Former accountant and keen footballer Ahmed Belbacha fled his native Algeria for the UK after an extremist Islamist terrorist group began to threaten him and his family. Last November, an Algerian court convicted him in absentia of unspecified terrorism offences. No evidence was produced to support his ‘conviction’ and it seems the trial was orchestrated to punish Ahmed for speaking out about human rights abuses in Algeria. Nonetheless he faces a further twenty years in prison if he is forced to return.

On 13th August, Reprieve formally asked the Foreign Secretary to offer Ahmed a home, on the grounds that Ahmed spent two and a half years in the UK seeking asylum. Ahmed’s claim was only finally denied after he missed his appeal hearing – unbeknownst to the British authorities, Ahmed was imprisoned in Guantánamo at the time. Our request was denied on the basis that Ahmed had not technically been a legal resident.

In his letter, the Foreign Secretary stated the Coalition’s commitment to helping President Obama close Guantánamo but proposed no practical assistance for homeless prisoners.

Reprieve’s Legal Director Cori Crider said: “While we applaud Mr Hague’s public commitment to human rights, there is a disjoint between his message and his refusal to help Ahmed on a legal technicality. The security services under Labour were more than willing to interrogate Ahmed in Kandahar. How can we claim we owe him nothing now? If Britain is to re-establish its moral standing on the global stage, it must not cling to discredited Labour policies. Repentance for the sins of the past has little meaning without concrete assistance for victims like Ahmed.”

Ahmed’s lawyer Tara Murray said: “Quite rightly, the Coalition government hopes to draw a line under Britain’s ‘War on Terror’ mistakes by making a fresh commitment to international human rights. Yet how can we enter this brave new world with the problems of the old one still unresolved? Guantanamo is full of homeless prisoners like Ahmed Belbacha, and the UK has a moral obligation to help President Obama out of the shameful mess he has inherited from the Bush/Blair years. ”

Notes for Editors:

ABOUT AHMED BELBACHA

Ahmed Belbacha remains a tragic example of the failures of Guantánamo. Cleared of all charges by the Bush Administration, he has consistently chosen to stay imprisoned rather than face his fate in Algeria, a country he originally fled after threats on his life by the terrorist group Group Islamique Armé (GIA).

Ahmed’s fears were confirmed by an alarming ‘conviction’ delivered in absentia by an Algerian court last November. In a disgraceful show trial, the court sentenced Ahmed 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 human rights abuses in Algeria.

Ahmed’s plight, together with his gentle nature, has attracted private offers of help from both sides of the Atlantic. 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 to Ahmed’s rescue, and Reprieve has appealed worldwide – to the governments of Britain, Ireland and Luxembourg - for < a href="http://www.reprieve.org.uk/2010_01_12_ahmed_belbacha_home">help .

Ahmed lived for years in Bournemouth where he studied English and worked; during a Labour conference he was responsible for cleaning the hotel room of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, from whom he received a healthy tip and note of appreciation. He is now in his eighth year of imprisonment without charge in Guantánamo Bay.