Guantanamo cell is better than freedom, says inmate fighting against release

An inmate of Guantanamo Bay who spends 22 hours each day in an isolation cell is fighting for the right to stay in the notorious internment camp.

Ahmed Belbacha fears that he will be tortured or killed if the United States goes ahead with plans to return him to his native Algeria.

The Times has learnt that Mr Belbacha, who lived in Britain for three years, has filed an emergency motion at the US Court of Appeals in Washington DC asking for his transfer out of Guantanamo to be halted. He was cleared for release from Camp Delta in February and his lawyers believe that his return to Algerian custody is imminent.

Mr Belbacha says that if he returns to Algeria, he faces the threat of torture by security services and murder by Islamist terrorists.

Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel with the human rights lawyers Reprieve and Mr Belbacha’s lawyer, has asked the US courts to block any transfer. “Ahmed is being held in camp six, the harshest part of Guantanamo,” he said. “His cell is all steel, there are no windows, he is not allowed to communicate with other prisoners and he gets just two hours exercise each day in a metal cage.

“He says his cell in Guantanamo is like a grave and that although it sounds crazy he would rather stay in those conditions than go back to Algeria. The fact is that he is really, really scared about what might happen to him in Algeria.”

Mr Belbacha, 38, fled Algeria in 1999 at the height of the brutal civil war between the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Algerian Government.

He was an accountant for a state-owned oil company, Sonatrach, when he was called for a second spell of military service. The call-up was followed by death threats to him and his family from the GIA, which killed thousands of state employees during the 1990s.

Mr Belbacha went first to France and then to Britain, where he applied for asylum. He was given exceptional leave to remain pending the outcome of his application.

He lived in Bournemouth, Dorset, and worked as a cleaner at the Highcliff Hotel, where he cleaned John Prescott’s room during the 1999 Labour Party conference. The former Deputy Prime Minister left him a thank-you note and a £30 tip.

Mr Belbacha claims that in July 2001 he was persuaded by friends to go to Pakistan to undertake religious study. While there he crossed the border into Afghanistan.

When the US-led invasion began in response to the September 11 attacks he crossed back into Pakistan. He claims that in December 2001 he was apprehended by villagers near Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, and sold to the authorities for a bounty.

American agents took him to a prison camp near Kandahar where, Mr Belbacha says, he was repeatedly beaten. In March 2002 he was flown to what was then Camp X-Ray at the US naval base in Cuba.

A military tribunal alleged that he had associated with the Taleban in Afghanistan and ruled that his detention was justified. But in February this year the US deemed him fit for release.

Mr Katznelson said: “Even though the Americans say he poses no threat, Ahmed fears that he has the stamp of Guantanamo Bay on him and he will be treated by the authorities as a terrorist if he is returned to Algeria.

“It is a bizarre situation because the reason he left in the first place was because the Islamist terrorists were threatening to kill him.”

Reprieve has asked the British Government to accept Mr Belbacha’s return here, but ministers have repeatedly said that they will intervene only in the cases of Guantanamo detainees who are British citizens.

Mr Belbacha lost his British asylum claim in 2003 because he failed to turn up for the hearing. Mr Katznelson said: “Ahmed knows he could be stuck in Guantanamo for a long time. However, he could be released tomorrow if the British Government would allow him to come back here.”

Mr Belbacha’s appeal to stay was rejected by a district court last week after the judge ruled that she had no jurisdiction in the case, despite believing the strength of his claims. His lawyers are prepared to go to the Supreme Court to prevent his transfer.

The men who wait

2002 The detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, opened

750 men have been held there

360 remain

7 Britons were freed in 2004-05

7 British residents are still there

95% Proportion of Guantanamo detainees who posed at least a “potential threat”.

(Published by Times Online, July 31, 2007)

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