Guantanamo Britons to be released

Five of the nine British prisoners being held at a United States military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are to be returned home "in the next few weeks".

    The US has been accused of rights abuses at the Cuba camp

    Officials said on Thursday the five men are Rhuhel Ahmad, Tariq Dergoul, Jamal al-Harith, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul.

    British police will consider whether the five should be arrested under anti-terrorist legislation when they arrive in Britain,

    Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

    He added that discussions are continuing with Washington over the other four Britons who are being held at the military base after they were picked up during the US-led "war on terror".

    Straw's announcement follows months of intensive discussions between British and US authorities over the British detainees, who are among 660 prisoners controversially held at the base without prisoner of war status.

    Mounting pressure

    "If they are going to release

    five of them in the next couple of weeks why wasn't it done at

    least 18 months ago and what has changed?"

    Stephen Jakobi,
    Fair Trials Abroad

    British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under mounting political pressure to resolve the fates of the men, and apologised earlier this month in parliament for the length of time this has taken.

    Straw said: "There have been many complex issues of law and security which both governments have had to consider."

    Last year, the US authorities decided that two of the detained Britons were eligible for trial by US military commissions.

    However, the British government's top legal advisor took the view that the commissions "would not provide the type of process we would afford British nationals", Straw said.

    Britain regarded as unfair the rules of the trials as outlined by the US Defense Department.

    'Unfair' trials

    Defendants cannot have private contact with their lawyers, cannot see all the evidence against them and cannot appeal to civilian courts.

    The foreign secretary said Britain believed the four men still held by the US "should be tried in accordance with international standards or returned to the UK".

    There are about 660 detainees from 40 countries being held at the Guantanamo base.

    Most were captured in Afghanistan as part of the American-led "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

    Washington has classified the prisoners as "enemy combatants" rather than as prisoners of war.

    Geneva Conventions

    Their blurred legal status has kept them outside the realm of the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war, and allowed the US authorities to hold them indefinitely beyond the reach of courts either in the United States or elsewhere.

    Straw said that when the five detainees returned home, it would be a matter for the British police and state prosecutors to decide what, if any, further action they should face.

    And asked whether he was confident he could deal with any security threat posed by the returning prisoners, Home Secretary David Blunkett said: "I think you will find that no one who is returned (as a result of) the announcement today will actually be a threat to the security of the British people."

    Straw has been under pressure
    over the Guantanamo detainees 

    Under British law it could be difficult to try the suspects

    since evidence obtained while they were held without lawyers

    would generally not be admissible in court.

    Rights abuses

    After the September 11 attacks on the United States, Britain

    passed laws allowing it to hold terror suspects indefinitely

    without charge and without obeying normal rules for evidence.

     

    But the measures apply only to foreigners, not to UK citizens.

    Human rights groups, who complained bitterly about the

    treatment of internees at the camp, welcomed the news.

    Stephen Jakobi, of

    pressure group Fair Trials Abroad, said:

    "I am totally delighted. Each one of these represents an

    enormous personal and family tragedy."

    "If they are going to release

    five of them in the next couple of weeks why wasn't it done at

    least 18 months ago and what has changed?"

    SOURCE: Agencies


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