Mon, Mar 19, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UK keeps Guantanamo detainees in limbo


Two long-term UK residents who have spent the past five years as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been officially cleared by a Pentagon tribunal. But they still face indefinite detention because the British government is refusing to arrange their release.

Ahmed Errachidi, 40, a Moroccan chef who worked in some of London's best-known restaurants for almost 18 years, and Ahmed Belbacha, 37, a refugee from Algeria who spent a week at the 1999 Labour Party conference working at the main party hotel, have both been classified as representing no terrorist threat.

In e-mails dated Feb. 22, Lieutenant-Colonel David Cooper, of the Pentagon's Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants, told the prisoners' lawyers in London that Errachidi and Belbacha had both "been approved to leave Guantanamo, after diplomatic arrangements for their departure had been made."

Cooper said that each had been cleared by a panel of military officers whose job was to determine whether a prisoner represented a threat to the US or its allies and whether there were other factors that could form the basis for continued detention, including intelligence value and any law-enforcement interest.

"We're not making any moves with these individuals or the other British residents at Guantanamo. Because they are not British citizens, we're not providing any consular or diplomatic assistance, a British Foreign Office spokesman said.

Asked how he imagined they might be able to leave, he said: "It has got nothing to do with us."

He added that if the government provided any help to Errachidi and Belbacha, this might affect the pending case of six other UK resident foreign detainees, due to be argued soon in the House of Lords.

They are appealing a decision by the High Court, which declined to order the government to take responsibility for them last year.

Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel at Reprieve, the London-based legal campaign group that represents the men, said he was shocked by the Foreign Office's refusal to act.

Reports last year suggested that Britain was refusing to ask the US to release some of the UK residents because the US was insisting on impractical security conditions.

But in these cases, Katznelson said: "it's hard to see that there could be any security considerations at all -- not when the Pentagon has already said they pose no risk."

He added that he had visited both men at Guantanamo recently.

Errachidi, who had been seen as a threat to camp discipline because of his fluent English, has been kept in solitary confinement for three years and now, Katznelson said, has withdrawn to the point where he refuses to speak to anyone.

Belbacha was "increasingly depressed, lonely and despondent. Most of the time we're together I do what I can just to give him hope," Katznelson said.

As with many Guantanamo prisoners, serious allegations made against the two men when they were captured in Pakistan in 2002 have been shown to be false.

Originally, the Pentagon claimed that Errachidi had spent the first half of 2001 training at an Afghan camp and fighting with the Taliban.

Reprieve was able to show that, at the time, he had been cooking at the Westbury Hotel in London and could not have left the country because he had submitted his passport to the Home Office with an application for permanent residence.

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