Psychiatrists and psychologists are a bit like economists - to get two to agree on anything is usually impossible.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are a bit like economists - to get two to agree on anything is usually impossible.

Yet today, 11 psychiatrists and one psychologist have united in declaring that indefinite detention under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act has had a severe adverse impact on the mental health of all detainees they interviewed. All the detainees are clinically depressed and a number are suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

To understand why so many have developed such severe mental illnesses it is important to appreciate the trauma they had usually suffered before even being detained in the UK.

Three of the detainees had experience of previous detention and torture but all had been in situations of political instability and unrest.

Most had fled to the UK in the belief that our justice system would protect them from the persecution they had faced in their own countries, and it is deeply ironic they should have found themselves incarcerated as a direct result of seeking to come here. This betrayal has undoubtedly contributed to their severe mental illnesses.

Plus the prison has no facilities that would be recognised by psychiatrists as equipped for the treatment of such severe psychiatric difficulties.

Clinicians have severe difficulty assessing what conditions are necessary for the care of these patients, because the Home Office will not let the doctors know what crime the detainees are supposed to have committed. The special provisions of the Act under which they are held means they don't have the right to know what they are charged with, they have no right to any kind of trial, and they have no right to appeal against those mysterious charges.

The Home Office will claim that the kind of evidence that would have been gathered against these men will often have been obtained using surveillance techniques whose secrecy is vital for national security. However the suspicion must be that much of the evidence the Government has might have been obtained through torture in the countries from which they fled, which are not admissible in a UK court.

The reality is that we are the only country of the 45 states in the Council of Europe to have suspended the legal right to trial in this kind of case. Only the UK follows the US policy of indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Adifference is that those incarcerated in Cuba are interrogated to gather information, those in Belmarsh do not appear, according to the clinicians, to have ever been interviewed by the security agencies, rendering a real question over the Home Secretary's defence of his suspension of the right to trial.

There are two theories as to why the governments are behaving as they do - one is that indefinite internment acts as a deterrent to any Muslim considering opposing the state.

The other theory is that Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East is pushing those of a strongly Christian or pro-West persuasion into their own fundamentalist camp, legitimising unethical retaliation.

Far better weapons to use against terrorism are democracy and the rule of law. If these men are guilty, put them on trial and end the suffering inflicted on them and their families. It is vital that psychiatrists speak out always on behalf of patients regardless of what politicians prefer.

Professor Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London

THE DETAINEES

One of the first to be detained under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act was Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian refugee in his early thirties, whose name was released before the court order preventing identification of the detainees. The Government claims he wasinvolved with associates of Osama bin Laden, in the UK and abroad.

Abu Rideh, who has five children, is diagnosed as suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, having been tortured in Israel, and his imprisonment at Belmarsh is said to have triggered flashbacks. In a letter smuggled out of prison, Abu Rideh has described his despair at his treatment.

He claims his charitable work in Afghanistan, where he set up a school for the children of ''Britain's most wanted'', may have put him in contact with affiliates of al-Qa'ida but he argues that it's not a crime to help the children of terrorists. He was transferred to Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital, but doctors who have examined him believe he should be placed near his family, at a hospital with less oppressive security measures.

Abu Qatada, left, is a Palestinian Muslim cleric granted asylum in Britain 10 years ago. He was arrested in 2002 after being accused of being al-Qa'ida's main representative in Europe. MI5 witnesses told the Special Immigration Appeals Commission that Abu Qatada played a "vitally important" role in "radicalising young UK Muslims" and recruiting them for al-Qa'ida.

Detainee W, who has no arms, is said to be so ill he does not recognise fellow inmates. A north African in his thirties being held at Woodhill, Buckinghamshire, he has become so weak and depressed he is unable to stand. It is claimed that he was not allowed a wheelchair and prisoners were prevented from carrying him.

Detainee G, a north African who has polio, is suspected of having major connections with al-Qa'ida-linked groups. His mental health is so bad that judges released him on conditional bail, on house arrest.

Robert Verkaik

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