‘I thought Britain stood for justice, but the British government has abandoned us’
Ian Cobain and Cynthia O’Murchu, The Guardian, Tuesday October 3, 2006
At least nine former British residents are being held at Guantánamo. They include two former public schoolboys and two political refugees, a one-time MI5 informer and a man with a history of mental illness. US authorities say they want to send most back to the UK, but the British say they have no right to be in this country. These are eight of the men at the centre of the secret negotiations between the US and Britain
A 36-year-old Libyan, Deghayes came to Britain 20 years ago with his mother, sister and brother after his father, a trade unionist, was arrested and executed by the Gadafy regime. He was granted refugee status and the rest of his family are now British citizens.
He grew up in Brighton, was privately educated, and studied law at Wolverhampton and Huddersfield before dropping out to travel to Afghanistan, where he married and had a son.
Deghayes was arrested in Pakistan shortly after the collapse of the Taliban, and taken to a US military base north of Kabul where he says he was handcuffed with his hands above his head for long periods. After being flown to Guantánamo, Deghayes lost the use of one eye when guards put down a prisoners’ protest, and says he has been kicked and punched and had faeces smeared in his face.
US authorities allege that his travel to Afghanistan was facilitated by a senior al-Qaida figure, that he was trained at a terrorist camp, and that he « had a good relationship with Osama bin Laden ». He rejects these accusations. He is also said to have been seen on a Chechen training video seized by the Spanish government. His lawyers have commissioned face recognition experts who say the man on the tape is not Deghayes, but Abu Walid, a Saudi mujahideen leader who was killed in Chechnya two years ago.
Born in Ethiopia, he arrived in Britain at the age of 15 when his father sought asylum. He grew up in Notting Hill, west London, and was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Mohammed, 28, is alleged to be one of the most dedicated jihadists of the former British residents held at Guantánamo. He also appears to have suffered the most appalling torture.
He travelled to Afghanistan during the summer of 2001, where he is alleged to have received firearms and street-fighting training and studied explosives alongside Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber. He is accused of attempting to travel to the US, where he was to have blown up apartment blocks by renting several flats, sealing the doors and windows, turning on the ovens and then setting timer devices to ignite the gas. Mohammed was arrested at Karachi airport as he tried to board a flight to London with a forged passport. He was flown to Morocco, where he says he was tortured for 18 months. As well as being beaten, doused in hot liquids and subjected to incessant loud noise, he says his penis was repeatedly slashed with a scalpel. Scarring appears to bear out this claim.
After several more months of alleged torture at a prison in Afghanistan, he was flown to Guantánamo. Mohammed had been due to be tried before a US military tribunal until the supreme court ruled last June that such proceedings were not lawful. It is unclear whether the Home Office will welcome his return, and he may be held while Congress considers new legislation allowing the prosecution of some Guantánamo detainees.
A Saudi who moved to the UK after spells living in Europe and the US, Aamer has a British wife and four British children living in Battersea, south London. He has never seen the youngest child.
He was working as a solicitor’s translator in London and had been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. He was in the process of applying for British citizenship when he moved, with his family, to Kabul. He says he wanted to live in a Muslim country while his application was processed. There his family shared a house with Moazzam Begg, the Birmingham man who was freed from Guantánamo last year.
Shortly after the collapse of the Taliban regime Aamer was captured by Afghan troops fighting alongside American forces. He found himself in a US prison in Kabul where, he says, he suffered numerous tortures, including beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation. The abuse is said to have continued at Guantánamo, where his lawyers say he has been in solitary confinement for so long that he considers insects to be friends.
Aamer, 39, has suffered ill-health after joining a hunger strike in protest at his detention without trial. « The British government refuses to help me, » he wrote during the protest. « I thought Britain stood for justice, but they helped British citizens, and then abandoned us – people who have lived in Britain for years, and who have British wives and children. »
The son of an Iraqi businessman who fled Saddam’s regime more than 20 years ago, al-Rawi, 38, was educated at Millfield public school and University College London. He worked as a motorcycle courier in the capital, and was an enthusiastic sailor, parachutist and climber. Unlike his brother and sister, however, he did not become a British citizen: the family decided that, as the youngest child, he should retain Iraqi citizenship in the hope of recovering their assets in the country. As a result, he has not enjoyed the representation of the Foreign Office.
In November 2002 he was arrested in the Gambia, where he had arrived to set up a mobile peanut oil processing plant. US authorities say he was attempting to establish a terrorist training camp, and that the profits from the peanut business were to have been passed to an al-Qaida network, allegations he denies.
A search of his luggage in the Gambia and his home in west London unearthed equipment and documents which MI5 regarded as suspicious, but which al-Rawi maintains were connected with an innocent industrial enterprise. After being interrogated by Gambian and American intelligence officers he was flown first to Bagram air base, north of Kabul, and then to Guantánamo, where he has been for four years. His interrogations at Guantánamo have focused on his association with Abu Qatada, the London-based Islamist cleric who is suspected of being a spiritual adviser and fundraiser for an al-Qaida network, and who is currently held at Full Sutton maximum security jail. However, the government now accepts that al-Rawi was helping MI5 keep watch on Qatada and acting as a go-between with the cleric.
A Jordanian, el-Banna and his wife were granted refugee status in the late 1990s. He settled in west London, where he claimed benefits which he supplemented with work as a car mechanic and faith healer. He has five children, all of whom are British nationals, but has not seen the youngest, who was born after his arrest.
He was detained in the Gambia along with his friend Bisher al-Rawi, and taken first to Afghanistan and then to Guantánamo. Like al-Rawi, he has been questioned about his intentions in the Gambia and his links with Abu Qatada.
El-Banna, 44, knew Qatada when they were neighbours in Pakistan. He maintains that he met him just once in the UK. The cleric was on the run from British police, and el-Banna agreed to take his family to see him at his safe house.
When el-Banna’s lawyers lost their high court attempt to force the government to represent him, Lord Justice Latham and Mr Justice Tugendhat acknowledged that evidence that he was being tortured at Guantánamo was a « powerful » political argument, even it had no force in law.
While al-Rawi’s lawyers are confident that he will be repatriated to the UK, possibly by the end of the year, el-Banna’s fate appears less certain. Spanish authorities are seeking his extradition, alleging that he has links with a terrorist organisation in that country. El-Banna says he knows nothing about the Spanish accusation.
A 40-year-old Moroccan, Errachidi had been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK, where he had been living since 1985. He worked as a chef in some of London’s best-known restaurants, including Joe Allen and the Hard Rock Cafe. He has a history of mental illness, and has been admitted to hospitals in London and Yorkshire for treatment for manic depression.
According to the US military, he underwent training at an al-Qaida camp known as al-Farouq in July 2001. The Pentagon’s timing, at least, has now been shown to be wrong: Errachidi’s lawyers have discovered payslips, time-sheets and bank transactions which show he was working at Cafe Loco in Muswell Hill, north London, at the time when he is alleged to have been receiving firearms and bomb-making training in eastern Afghanistan.
Errachidi did travel to Afghanistan a couple of months later, however. He says he went first to Pakistan, in November 2001, to buy cheap silver jewellery which he could sell at a profit in Morocco to raise funds for medical treatment for one of his two children, who live in Tangier. He says he then crossed the border to offer whatever help he could to civilians caught up in the post-9/11 conflict. On returning to Pakistan he was captured by bounty hunters and sold to US officials.
He says he was tortured at a US-run prison in Afghanistan before being sent to Guantánamo, where he has spent two of the last four years in isolation.
Belbacha, 36, was a successful footballer in Algiers before retiring from the game and finding work as an accounts clerk with a large corporation. He appears to have moved to the UK seven years ago as an economic migrant, but after settling in Bournemouth, where he has a number of friends, he applied for asylum, saying he feared persecution in Algeria.
He found work first in a local laundry and then as a waiter at the Highcliff hotel, where he was cleared to work during the 1999 Labour party conference after being vetted by MI5. His friends recall his pride at receiving a £30 tip and a personal letter of thanks from John Prescott.
In June 2003, Belbacha was denied asylum but was granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK. By this time, however, he had already been held in Guantánamo for more than a year, having been arrested in Pakistan during the dying days of the Taliban regime.
Belbacha maintains that he had taken a month’s holiday, visiting Damacus and Tehran and an Afghan refugee camp. However, the Pentagon says it has evidence that he stayed at a guest house in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which was frequented by Algerian mujahideen, that he received training on Kalashnikov rifles and Siminov machine-guns at a camp nearby, and that he met Osama bin Laden on two occasions. Lawyers at Reprieve, a British charity which represents seven of the eight former British residents, have not yet been allowed to see Belbacha.
An Algerian army deserter who fled to Britain in 1999 after being ordered to fight against Islamists, Sameur settled with his brother in Harrow, north London. He was granted leave to remain in the UK, was seeking asylum, and living on benefits.
Sameur, 33, has told his American interrogators that during the summer of 2001 a man he met at Finsbury Park mosque gave him the money to travel to Afghanistan, where he could more easily live the life of a good Muslim.
He claims that he fled Jalalabad for the mountains of Tora Bora during the post-9/11 conflict, but maintains that he was attempting to escape the fighting, not take part in it. After crossing the border to Pakistan with several other Arabs, he was arrested, then shot in the leg while attempting to escape.
Sameur is alleged to have fought with Muslim mujahideen in Bosnia and is accused of going to Afghanistan for further military training. He has also admitted having prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, but now says that he confessed to this only because his American captors were refusing to treat his leg wound.
According to the declassified transcript of one hearing at Guantánamo, he said: « I just told them anything, whatever they wanted to hear, because I wanted them to treat my leg. I saw other people there whose legs had to be cut off. I did not want my leg to be cut off. »
His lawyer has been unable to see him, despite taking on his case a year ago.