Lawyers for two British prisoners due to be tried as terrorist suspects by a US military tribunal have threatened to boycott the proceedings unless they are guaranteed to befair. They said to do otherwise would legitimise the process.
The threat came as Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, held talks with William Haynes, the Pentagon's most senior lawyer, in London yesterday to decide the fate of the prisoners. There were reports that the suspects had accepted a plea bargain, admitting to war crimes in exchange for a fixed release late.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General indicated that Mr Haynes appeared willing to make concessions to British concerns about the judicial treatment of the prisoners. "The US is considering what further assurances can be given on the process, particularly in relation to the independence of the military commissions and the review panel, and the role of defence counsel," she said.
In quite what circumstances any deal has been reached is unclear.The Independent has established that the prisoners, Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, who are being held at Guantanamo Bay, have not been told the British Government is trying to secure assurances about the tribunals they are expected to face.
Louise Christian, the men's solicitor, said that if a fair trial could not be guaranteed, she and other lawyers were unlikely to take part. "To do so would be to legitimise it," she said.
Mr Abbasi, 23, and Mr Begg, 35, are accused with 650 other inmates of being members of the Taliban or al-Qa'ida. All were seized during the war in Afghanistan or its aftermath.
Earlier this year it was announced that the men - two of nine Britons held at the US naval base on Cuba - would be among the first six prisoners to be placed before US military tribunals. This week an American paper reported that the men had agreed to a plea bargain in exchange for a release date. A source told The Wall Street Journal: "You renounce terrorism, you renounce Osama bin Laden and, by the way, you say 'the Americans treated me very well in Guantanamo'. That would be a phenomenal public relations coup."
Ms Christian and her colleagues in the US have not been allowed to communicate with the two men. The Foreign Office said its last visit to the prison was in April, and a spokesman for Mr Haynes said his office had not informed the men their fate was being discussed. The only other people who could have spoken to the men - observers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - said they too had not visited since April.
Steven Watt, of the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York, said: "[The prisoners] don't know what is happening outside of Guantanamo Bay. This is not fair. We represent them in the federal process and we have not even been allowed to speak to them. It's ridiculous." A Pentagon spokesman said that a plea bargain could not be reached until the men had been formally charged. This had not yet happened and proceedings had been suspended until the talks between Lord Goldsmith and Mr Haynes had been completed. He said, however, that a plea bargain was an option available to the prosecuting authorities.
One of the concessions secured by the British Government has been to ensure the prisoners will not face the death penalty if convicted. A British lawyer of their choice will be allowed to attend the proceedings, although it is unclear whether the lawyer will be permitted to communicate with the other members of the legal team.
A spokeswoman for the ICRC's delegation in Washington, which is due to visit the detention centre next week, said that the team leader, Vincent Cassard, was assessing whether to inform the two prisoners of the discussions about their fate. "We want to do everything we can to ensure their judicial rights are met," she said.
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