Britons being held in Guantanamo Bay could soon be free

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The Independent Online

The British terror suspects held in Guantanamo Bay could soon be released without trial if the Prime Minister can promise the Americans that the men would be placed under surveillance in Britain.

A senior US official yesterday set out the terms for their release, in a softening of the US position over the repatriation of some of the detainees .

Pierre-Richard Prosper, the US war crimes ambassador, said that the US was not asking for "iron-clad guarantees", only that the "receiving country" had the "political will to manage the threat by legal or security measures."

A stumbling block to the return of the British suspects is the British Government's inability to promise the Americans that the suspects would be put on trial in this country.

Privately, ministers accept that the UK courts will throw out any prosecution on the grounds that the evidence is inadmissible.

But yesterday it became clear that America is only insisting on prosecutions in the cases of Moazzam Begg from Birmingham and Feroz Abbassi from London who they have categorised as "high risk".

Another US source confirmed yesterday that the other seven detainees, deemed a "medium risk", could be sent home on condition that they are closely monitored by the police or the security services.

But Mr Prosper said that the high security status of Mr Begg and Mr Abbassi meant that the Americans were pressing ahead with plans to put them on trial before a military tribunal.

For the medium risk "category two" detainees he said it was a question of the management of the alleged terrorist risk they still posed. "We are satisfied that the British Government has the political will to do what it can to manage the threat," he said.

But he indicated that a "category one" high-risk suspect must face detention, investigation or a trial if he was to be repatriated.

Mr Prosper added: "We are trying to reach a determination as soon as possible but it could be a little bit down the road because of the complexities in making a final decision.'

He said each individual case had to be considered separately and that new information and updated assessments of the detainees meant that the three security categories into which they had been placed were "fluid". The third category was for detainees who posed no risk. But he stressed that all of the British detainees did pose some kind of risk and that some of them were "hardened cases ... engaged in dangerous activities".

He said America wanted to be sure that suspects were not released in to an environment which allowed them to take part in another terrorist attack like that of 11 September 2001. Yesterday Mr Prosper disputed allegations recently made by lawyers representing the families of the British detainees that the conditions in which they were held amounted to a form of psychological torture and that any confessions had been made under duress.

He said he disagreed with the assertion that the detainees were being held in a "psychologically coercive environment", insisting that their detention affected their state of mind no more or no less than other forms of imprisonment.

The US Supreme Court is still to rule on the question of whether Guantanamo Bay is subject to US jurisdiction.

But Mr Prosper said he saw no reason why the first cases could not go before the military tribunals before the court had ruled on the outstanding issue.

A spokesman for the Attorney General said last night that an announcement on the British detainees would be made within a matter of weeks.

The seven Britons categorised by the Americans as posing a medium risk are Shafiq Rasul, 24, Asif Iqbal, 20, and Ruhal Ahmed, 20, all of Tipton, West Midlands; Martin Mubanga, 29, from north London; Jamal Udeen, 35, from Manchester; Richard Belmar, 23, from London, and Tarek Dergoul, 24, from east London.

Kate Allen Director of Amnesty International UK yesterday called on Mr Blair to bring an end to the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay.

Azmat Begg, father of Moazzam Begg, said: "I don't know what is going to happen to my son Moazzam or any of the hundreds of people being held out there."