Four Britons, One Australian to Be Released
LONDON, Jan. 11 — The United States has agreed to release the four remaining British citizens who have been held as suspected terrorists without charge or trial at Guantanamo Bay for more than two years, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons Tuesday.
The release of the four follows months of what Straw described as “intense and complex discussions” with American officials over U.S. security concerns about the men, including direct discussions between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.
The U.S. Defense Department said in a statement that the British government had accepted responsibility for the conduct of the detainees after their release. The Pentagon also announced plans to release an Australian national.
The men, who have alleged they have been mistreated in detention, have been the focus of a long human rights campaign here and a symbol for people who argue that the Bush administration has violated international law in its war on terrorism. Nearly 550 detainees remain at Guantanamo.
Blair, who is the Bush administration’s staunchest foreign ally, has continually defended the detention of the men, even while negotiating for their freedom. But other members of Blair’s government, including Straw and Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, have publicly declared that the military tribunals that the Bush administration established for the detainees did not meet international standards of fairness.
Five British nationals were released from Guantanamo last March and returned to their homes here after a brief interrogation here by police. U.S. authorities have insisted until now that the four remaining Britons posed more of a potential terrorist threat. Two of them had been scheduled last year for the first round of military trials that the British government rejected as unfair.
Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in parliament, told lawmakers that the four men had been “rescued from a legal no-man’s-land.”
“The detention of these men violated all legal principle,” said Campbell. “Their civil rights were systematically and deliberately abused and they were denied due process.” He called their detention “a damaging episode which should never again be repeated.”
The government sought to portray the releases as a political triumph for Blair, who is often criticized for having extracted few tangible benefits from Bush, a highly unpopular figure here. “Had it not been for our alliance” with the United States, Straw told the House of Commons Tuesday, the prisoners would not have been freed.
Those being released include Feroz Abbasi, 24, a South London resident whom a U.S. military panel last fall ruled was an al Qaeda member who had volunteered for a suicide mission. Abbasi, who was captured in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban authorities there in late 2001, denied the allegation. He was not allowed to have a lawyer at the hearing.
The others are: Moazzam Begg, 36, a teacher from Birmingham, England, who was arrested in Pakistan in January 2002; and London residents Richard Belmar, 25, arrested somewhere in Pakistan, and Martin Mubanga, 31, who was arrested in Zambia in 2002 and transferred to Guantanamo.
Begg sent out a handwritten letter last summer alleging he had been mistreated both at the prison at Bagram Air Base north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, where he was held for one year, and at Guantanamo, and forced to sign a confession under duress after being threatened with execution. He also alleged he had witnessed beatings that led to the death of two fellow detainees at the Bagram prison.
Mubanga told a Foreign Office official he had been shackled and physically abused, and Abassi’s family has claimed he has been kept in solitary confinement for long periods and had suffered mental deterioration. The five Britons released last March also alleged they were mistreated.
Geraint Davies, a member of Blair’s Labor Party who represents the parliamentary district where Abbasi lives, welcomed his constituent’s release. “Clearly he’s not a person beyond suspicion,” said Davies. “But if he’s done anything wrong he should be charged in a court of law. It’s important that if Britain is to stand shoulder to shoulder with America to fight for peace and democracy we can’t have Guantanamo Bay stand as an example of injustice and double standards.”