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Guantanamo Prisoner Release Becomes Challenging
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Guantanamo Prisoner Release Becomes Challenging

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Guantanamo Prisoner Release Becomes Challenging

Guantanamo Prisoner Release Becomes Challenging
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While many prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have fought for years to gain their freedom, at least some are now petitioning U.S. courts to remain in custody for fear they would be tortured or killed when they return home.

The ironic twist has complicated the Bush administration's plan to shut down the politically embarrassing U.S. military prison that since Sept. 11, 2001 has housed nearly 800 prisoners, many of them languishing without charge.

Currently, about 80 of the 360 detainees still at Guantanamo are cleared for release. But some fear they will be tortured if they return to their home countries – and there are problems getting third nations to take them.

Take the case of Ahmed Belbacha. The 38-year-old former hotel cleaner was born and raised in Algeria but fled in 1999, at the height of the civil war between government forces and the Armed Islamic Group, a radical offshoot of Algeria's main Islamist opposition.

Clive Stafford Smith, one of Belbacha's lawyers, says his client felt he was being persecuted by all sides when he left Algeria.

"He had been in the military in Algeria. When he was told he had to come back into the military, he was going to be persecuted by the government if he didn't do it, and he was going to be potentially killed by the Islamic extremists if he did," Smith said.

Since Algeria plunged into a bloody civil war in 1992, Armed Islamic Group has been linked to terrorist attacks in Europe and to the massacres of thousands of civilians in Algeria.

Belbacha went to Britain to seek asylum. He was provisionally allowed to stay in the U.K. but his request for asylum was turned down in 2003. Belbacha couldn't show up for his hearing because he was detained at Guantanamo Bay. He has been held — without any charge — at Guantanamo for more than five years.

But in February, the Pentagon determined that Belbacha no longer posed a threat, and no longer had intelligence value, and cleared him for release. His lawyer says the problem is the U.S. wants to send Belbacha back to Algeria where he could face persecution, even torture.

"The paradox of all this is that he didn't want to be in Algeria in the first place, and now they're going to send him back to a place where he desperately doesn't want to go; worse, even, than being in Guantanamo," Smith said

Bel Bacha - captured in Pakistan and deemed an enemy combatant by the U.S. - 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 upon returning home.

"How many times is the U.S. 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 three dozen other detainees. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are among other groups that are worried.

Belbacha's lawyers are waging an 11th-hour plea before the U.S. Supreme Court to keep him temporarily at Guantanamo while looking for another country to give him political asylum. (U.S. lower courts have refused to intervene.)

Chief Justice John Roberts is giving the administration until Wednesday to make its case for transferring Belbacha back to Algeria.

The U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report, says Algerian security forces frequently torture detainees. The department, which takes the lead in negotiating the release of Guantanamo prisoners, declined to comment on any specific case.

But in a previous interview on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, John Bellinger, the legal advisor to the Secretary of State, said if it's more likely than not that a detainee will be tortured in his country, the U.S. has a legal obligation to find another place.

"In cases where we think that there is a risk that individuals who returned may be mistreated, then we will try to get assurances from the country that they will be treated properly. If there are countries that have got a bad human rights record, we spend a very long time, years, negotiating assurances. And there are some countries that we will just not accept assurances from at all," Bellinger said.

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers Belbacha's case, his lawyers are also pressing the British government to allow him to take up residency again in the U.K. So far, the British government has declined. Its embassy in Washington did not reply to requests for comment by NPR.

There is another option that Belbacha could face — being moved to a country where he has no history, and no roots.

That's what happened to another Algerian detainee, Dr. Abu Mohammed. He also did not want to be sent back home for fear of persecution. His attorneys asked the administration to send him to France where he has family, says one of his lawyers, Anne Castle.

"Then without any warning at all we received a phone call in November 2006, and we were told that Dr. Mohammed had been released from Guantanamo and was then en route to Tirana, Albania," she said.

Castle says Mohammed now lives in a single room, without any central heating, at a refugee camp in Albania. It's not Guantanamo, it's not Algeria, but it's not home.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

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