Wed, Aug 08, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Guantanamo inmate fights to stay put


This was supposed to be the moment Ahmed Bel Bacha was waiting for -- the end of his five years in prison at Guantanamo Bay. Instead, the Algerian is fighting to stay put rather than return home.

Bel Bacha, scheduled to leave Guantanamo Bay soon along with three of his countrymen, fears he will be tortured back in Algeria, a country he had already fled once before to seek asylum in Britain, his lawyers said.

And so lawyers for the 38-year-old former hotel cleaner have been waging an 11th-hour attempt to keep him temporarily at Guantanamo while looking for another country to give him political asylum.

Bel Bacha is not alone in his fears.

Human rights groups say at least two dozen Guantanamo detainees -- including many from the North African countries of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia -- are afraid they will face abuse on returning home.

"How many times is the US willing to take the risk with someone's life and send them back to regimes with terrible human rights records?" said Zachary Katznelson, an attorney for the rights group Reprieve, which represents Bel Bacha and 36 other detainees.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are among other groups that are worried.

About 80 detainees have been declared eligible for release.

Navy Commander Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said detainees at the US Navy base in Cuba can leave only "once humane treatment and continuing threat concerns have been satisfactorily addressed by the receiving country."

"I reiterate that detainees are not repatriated to countries where it is more likely than not that they will be tortured," he said.

Algeria's presidential office said that Algeria had US concerns about the prisoners covered, both through the country's "constant and incontestable commitment to the struggle against international terrorism," and by having signed "numerous international conventions for the protection of human rights."

But rights groups say countries' promises are not enough.

With US President George W. Bush facing international pressure to close the military prison and with the US administration struggling over what to do with roughly 360 remaining prisoners, rights groups fear US officials may overlook the torture records of inmates' home countries.

In at least one other case already in North Africa, a former Guantanamo detainee says he was mistreated on returning to Tunisia.

Abdullah bin Omar's lawyer and wife said the 49-year-old father of eight was struck while in Tunisian custody and that security services also threatened to rape bin Omar's female family members.

Bin Omar's wife said in an interview that his physical and mental state has improved since his return, though his prison conditions are "appalling."

"If he had known he was going to be treated that way, he wouldn't have accepted to come home" and would have sought asylum elsewhere instead, Khadija Bousaidi said.

Another Tunisian who was returned home and jailed, Lofti Lagha, has still never seen a lawyer, either before or after leaving Guantanamo, Reprieve said.

Two representatives from the rights group left Tunisia on Sunday after trying unsuccessfully to see Lagha and bin Omar.

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