Tuesday, August 07, 2007

UK Prime Minister asks US to release British residents at Guantanamo

[Article is here.]

British officials have long refused to represent foreigners held at Guantánamo who have UK residency. So today's announcement from the Foreign Office and Home Office marks a change in policy.

The move provides further evidence Gordon Brown, who as prime minister met the US president, George Bush, for the first time last month, intends to plough his own furrow when it comes to the special relationship.

When Tony Blair was in Downing Street, the government concentrated its efforts on securing the release of British citizens from Guantánamo.

In January 2005, nine British nationals were freed and returned home. After anti-terrorist detectives had questioned them for several days, they were reunited with their families.

But as recently as October last year, the Foreign Office said the British government could not intervene under international law on behalf of people who were not British nationals. In the absence of official action, the plight of foreign residents living in the UK before they ended up in Guantánamo was left to human rights groups such as Reprieve and Amnesty International, and opposition MPs.

The exception, until today, was Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi national seized on suspicion of links to terrorism while on a trip to Gambia in 2002. British officials took up Mr Rawi's case only after it was disclosed he had previously cooperated with MI5.

Upon his return to the UK in April, Mr Rawi said he was happy to be reunited with his family, but added that his homecoming was bittersweet because his best friend, Jamil el-Banna, was still in Guantánamo.

Mr Banna, a Jordanian who lived in Dollis Hill, north-west London, is one of the five UK residents whose release British authorities are now seeking.

The Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather, who has campaigned for the release of her constituent Mr Banna, welcomed the news. But she added that the decision to seek the men's release was long overdue.

"This decision should have been taken years ago," she said. "Abandoning British residents to indefinite imprisonment in obscene conditions was a gross dereliction of duty by the government."

The Liberal Democrat leader, Menzies Campbell, added: "This is a belated recognition of our moral responsibility towards these men. Up to now the government's attitude has been supine in the face of systematic violation of all known legal principles. It has been left to opposition MPs to make the case for their return to the UK."

Amnesty International, which has been campaigning for the fair trial or safe release of all 370 prisoners at Guantánamo, said it would press the government over another UK resident, Ahmed Belbacha, about whom little is known.

Ever since the US started using Guantánamo to hold "enemy combatants" in January 2002, the camp has been heavily criticised by America's allies and human rights groups. The absence of due process and the use of torture has also troubled some US officials.

Memos and emails to superiors from FBI and Defence Intelligence Agency officers in 2005 revealed how appalled they were by the methods young military interrogators were using at Guantánamo.

According to the memos, which the American Civil Liberties Union obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, abuse was "systematic", with frequent beatings, chokings, and sleep deprivation for days on end.

"On a couple of occasions I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a foetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water," an anonymous FBI agent wrote in one memo. "Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more."

After five years, even the Bush administration seemingly realises the camp has become an embarrassment and wants to get rid of those detainees that are not considered "high value".

Some 370 inmates remain, down from 770 since the camp opened. In some ways, the Brown government is doing the administration a favour by reducing the numbers at Guantánamo, as well as making a show of independent spirit.

No comments: