‘In Britain, I have fewer rights than an animal’
When the man known as ‘G’ fled torture in Algeria, the UK offered the hope of refuge. But then he was detained for three years without trial. Now, living under stringent bail conditions, this member of the ‘Belmarsh 12’ is desperate to leave the country he thought would help him. He talks to Paul Donovan
The Guardian, March 28, 2007
Not that long ago, in a block of flats in east London, I had one of the strangest conversations of my life. I sat on a chair in the block’s communal hall; the man I had come to visit remained just inside his front door. « G » had asked me not to come into his flat, as I had not been vetted by the Home Office. Had I entered, he would have been in breach of his immigration bail and liable to arrest.
G – whose full name cannot be used as it might put him at risk of reprisals – had polio as a child, and he sat in a wheelchair, an electronic tag on one of his matchstick-thin legs. The tag would tell a monitoring company where he was at any time. Inside the flat were G’s wife and their baby son. Their young daughter was at school.
If the Home Office had its way, my visit would not have been possible. Thirty-seven-year-old G, who fled his native Algeria 12 years ago after being tortured by government forces, would long ago have gone back « home ». And then … who knows? Earlier this year, four Algerian men with similar stories to G’s were deported after assurances that they would not face criminal charges. Two have since been arrested, imprisoned and charged with terrorist activities. « The men lost all faith in the possibility that they would receive any meaningful justice in the UK, » said Amnesty International, which has called on Britain to stop deporting terrorist suspects to Algeria « They preferred to return to Algeria, despite the risks they would face. »
It was in December 2001, after the passing of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, that G became one of 12 foreign nationals detained in Belmarsh prison. Police and immigration officials arrived at 4am, and took him away on his crutches. « There were 15 police officers crammed into this one-bedroomed flat, » G recalls. « They were swearing and very aggressive. My young daughter started crying. » There was no stopping at a police station to be interviewed – it was straight to Belmarsh. To this day, neither G nor any of the other detainees have been told what they are supposed to have done, and G has still not been questioned by police or security services. The « Belmarsh 12 » have never appeared in a normal court to answer charges, only the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac), in which judges rule on cases that the Home Secretary deems to involve matters of national security.
G had arrived in Britain in 1995, having fled Algeria in fear of his life. He had a baccalaureate in mathematics and was three years into an engineering course when he took part in a student protest against the country’s military rulers, who annulled elections in 1991 when it seemed that the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win. As a result, he was taken into custody by the feared Department for Information and Security (DRS). He claims to have been tortured for three weeks by the DRS, given electric shocks and beaten with sticks. Later he fled the country, spending four years in Saudi Arabia before eventually landing at Heathrow carrying a false French passport. What drew him to Britain, he says, was its famous respect for human rights. « The immigration officer was about to stamp my passport, but I said, ‘No. I want to apply for refugee status.' »
After launching his asylum claim, G survived on income support. Because of his disability, social services found him a one-bedroomed flat, and he began to study at the local college of further education, taking courses in English, maths and electronics, picking up on his engineering training from Algeria. He met a woman, a French citizen of Senegalese origin. They married in 1999, and although his asylum claim had been turned down in 1997, this marriage to an EU citizen meant that in June 2001 G was granted six months residence.
It is more than five years since G was last in a classroom or had anything like a normal existence. « Without the arrests, » he says, « I would be studying and seeking to carry on my life. » Having lived in his flat for 12 years, however, he is a well-known figure in the area. There are smiles and greetings as neighbours pass the doorway.
G claims to have no idea why he was picked up. He is a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and attending Friday prayers at a local mosque – but that is hardly a crime. Perhaps, he suggests, someone in the Algerian community sought to profit from pointing the finger in his direction. « Some gain money or British passports, » he says.
On his arrival at Belmarsh in 2001, G was put together with the other detainees in what is known as « the unit », a prison-within-a-prison built for IRA prisoners during the Troubles. « We were kept a minimum of 22 hours in the cell and never saw the sky, » says G, who did not see his wife for six months. « When she was finally allowed to visit, there was a screen and we had to communicate by phone. » The then home secretary, David Blunkett, declared that he and other detainees could not be deported to Algeria because they would be tortured. « But it was apparently OK to keep us in prison indefinitely here. In Britain, animals have rights; I have fewer rights than an animal. »
G became the first of the detainees to be granted bail in 2004, after he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Those first bail conditions restricted him to the flat for 24 hours a day. He could not even enter his small garden, and could only speak to his wife and their first daughter, who was then four. « I had to ring the tagging company [to prove I was still at home] five times during the day and night. For the first month, I was just happy to be out of prison, but as time passed, I wished I was back in prison. I needed help for my mental and physical state – but no doctor could come without first being vetted by the Home Office. »
Things got a little easier in December 2004, when the House of Lords ruled that detention without trial was unlawful. G’s bail was replaced by a less stringent « control order », and he was allowed out of his home for 12 hours a day, though not to use phones or the internet. His request to return to his studies was denied. He still had to wear a tag. « People were frightened to come and talk to me because of what they saw as possible repercussions. »
Then, in 2005, came the July 7 London bombings. Although G and the other detainees had the best alibis in the land, having been under surveillance and tagged since leaving prison, on August 11, five vans of police and immigration officers arrived to take him away again.
G was served deportation papers by immigration officers working on behalf of the Home Office. They declared that he was a threat to national security and would be deported from the country. The police vans then set off on a long journey to Long Lartin prison in the Midlands. « I was put in the deportation unit with no association. There were no cells for wheelchairs. The sink was too high. I needed help with the toilet. » At his lowest point, he tried to hang himself with wire. « There was blood everywhere. I was nearly dead before the officers rescued me. »
G was granted bail in October 2005. Again, the conditions were stringent: he would be confined to the flat 24 hours a day, with no visitors, no phone line and no mobile. The tag was still to be worn. And now his wife was pregnant with their second child and had to go into hospital with gall stones. « I was in the home with my daughter. I couldn’t go out to get shopping or to take her to school, » G recalls. They were only able to survive thanks to the kindness of a family friend, who had been vetted to visit the flat: she went shopping for the family and took the little girl to school. Bail conditions have since been relaxed, so that G can now take and pick up his daughter from school and go shopping within a confined area.
Five years of captivity and other restrictions have left G desperate to leave the UK. « I have no rights here, it seems. » Siac recently turned down his appeal against deportation and he is now waiting to see if he is granted grounds to take his case to the court of appeal. Would he consider returning to Algeria voluntarily, as his compatriots reluctantly did earlier this year? « I cannot, » he says. « It would put my mother, father and family there in danger. If the Home Office can find a safe country, I’ll leave Britain. »
The Home Office maintains that G has nothing to worry about. After all, if he does go back to Algeria, he will be told how to get in touch with the British embassy. « We have monitored those deportations very carefully and will continue to do so, » said a Home Office spokesman. « This has all happened, as far as we are concerned, in accordance with international law. »
But G’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce, who also acted for the four other Algerians, says that only desperation drove them back. After years of being treated by the British authorities in the same way as G, they chose « a quick death there rather than a slow death here ».