British bash US military trials; Fault rules as ‘unacceptable’

LONDON — Britain’s top legal officer called proposed US military trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees ”unacceptable” yesterday in a speech reviving a rare rift between the closest allies in the global anti-terrorism war.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s comments, released ahead of delivery in a speech in Paris, were some of the bluntest statements yet of London’s disquiet concerning the US handling of terrorism suspects at the US base in Cuba.

”While we must be flexible and be prepared to countenance some limitation of fundamental rights if properly justified and proportionate, there are certain principles on which there can be no compromise,” he said in the release.

”Fair trial is one of those — which is the reason we in the UK have been unable to accept that the US military tribunals . . . offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards.”

Britain has long said it believes rules laid out by Washington for tribunals to try detainees are unfair, but Goldsmith’s remarks, hours before a visit to Europe by President Bush, drew fresh attention to the dispute.

Goldsmith is the head of a British team negotiating over the fate of four Britons among some 600 people held without charge at the camp, suspected of fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan or supporting Al Qaeda radicals.

Five Britons were released from Guantanamo in March. Several alleged mistreatment by US interrogators.

The Pentagon has yet to hold any trials under the proposed rules. It says trials would be fair, but that the entire process would be controlled by the Defense Department and there is no right to appeal to a civilian court. Access to lawyers would be restricted and defendants will not see secret evidence.

While British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government is uneasy about Guantanamo, it has itself been lambasted by campaigners for the detention of 17 foreigners under emergency post-Sept. 11 powers allowing indefinite imprisonment without charge.

”Britain’s indefinite detention regime fails every test,” said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch in a statement this week. ”It violates fundamental human rights, and it’s not clear it has made Britain a safer place.”

Goldsmith, in his Paris speech, defended the policy as the only way to deal with foreign suspects who will not leave Britain voluntarily but cannot be deported because they face death, torture, or mistreatment in their nations of origin.

”We cannot force them to go because of concern for their own human rights,” Goldsmith said in his speech.

Of the 17, two have voluntarily left Britain and one was ordered released by a secret court. Another was moved to house arrest after a court ruled his indefinite detention without charge had driven him insane.

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