Britons admit to al-Qa'ida link in plea bargain deal

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The Independent Online

Two Britons held at Guantanamo Bay have admitted supporting al-Qa'ida in a plea bargain deal to secure a short sentence, their lawyers have revealed.

Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi, named by President George Bush last month as two of six detainees facing trial, are believed to have agreed to plead guilty under duress after prolonged interrogation and segregation at Camp Delta, Cuba.

Clive Stafford Smith, their British-born lawyer in the United States, told The Independent on Sunday the six men were selected to face a military tribunal only because they would admit to supporting terrorism and Osama bin Laden. The Pentagon wanted its first trials to be quick and successful, he said.

"They have to agree to plead in order to get this far," Mr Stafford Smith added. "The US wants to have a few guilty pleas, so they're not going to designate people for trial until they've agreed to plead guilty - so you can take it as read that Begg and Abbasi have pleaded guilty."

Louise Christian, the London-based solicitor acting for Mr Abbasi, who is from Croydon, south London, and was captured in Afghanistan in January 2002, confirmed she had been told her client had agreed a deal. "That's what I'm hearing as well," she said.

Reports in the US suggested both men were being "rewarded" with a quick trial because they had revealed more details about al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, after months of refusing to co-operate.

Their parents have reacted with dismay to these disclosures, which follow reports in Australia that David Hick, an Australian convert to Islam among those "designated" by Mr Bush for trial last month, had also agreed a plea bargain.

Azmat Begg, whose son Moazzam was arrested by the CIA in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February 2002, said he believed his son had been repeatedly tortured to secure a confession. Suggestions that his son really was a terrorist, he said, were "absolute rubbish" and based on interrogations without any lawyer present. He added: "We've written dozens of times and received no reply. If he's alive and able to, why hasn't he replied?"

Ms Christian said that Zumrati Juma, Mr Abbasi's mother, was "distressed" by the development. After reports that he has suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide, Ms Juma is now anxiously waiting to see a US psychiatric report on her son given to the Foreign Office three weeks ago. Ms Christian said ministers would not release it until "embarrassing" details about his capture and interrogation were deleted from it.

However, Whitehall sources believe the Pentagon's plea bargaining deal is now in doubt after Tony Blair personally intervened with Mr Bush last month, following a legal and political outcry about the proposed tribunals.

The White House ordered Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, to suspend the prosecutions and open negotiations with Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, about the treatment of the two Britons - ending 18 months of non-cooperation and obstruction by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon's most senior lawyer, William Haynes, flew to London last week for a third meeting to discuss making further concessions on the cases of Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi and the repatriation of seven other Britons at Camp Delta still held without charge.

Pentagon officials now say plea bargains with Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi will be agreed only after they are formally charged. But the Pentagon has also said both men can now have civilian defence lawyers, suggesting they will be advised to plead not guilty.

Gareth Peirce, Mr Begg's British lawyer, said the entire US process was illegitimate. "This is all a complete violation of Geneva Convention rights for combatants or of any defendant in a criminal case," she said. "All of this is illegal from start to finish."