Government may back Britons' bid to leave Guantanamo

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The Independent Online

New legal efforts to free four Britons from Guantanamo Bay may be backed by the Government, the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, has revealed as lawyers in New York started proceedings to release the British detainees after a landmark US Supreme Court ruling last week.

Under mounting pressure from senior Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat backbenchers, Ms Harman told MPs last week that ministers are "actively considering" pleas from the men's lawyers for the Government to formally support the British detainees in court.

Last Monday, the Supreme Court shocked the Pentagon and White House by ruling that more than 600 men imprisoned at Camp Delta, Cuba, had been illegally prevented from challenging their detention in the courts.

On Friday, lawyers for two of the British men in Cuba - Moazzam Begg, from Manchester, and Feroz Abbasi, from Croydon - filed petitions in a court in Washington demanding that they and seven other detainees of other nationalities be granted immediate access to lawyers.

This week, the same legal team will file similar petitions for another two Britons in Camp Delta, Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga, as well as three men who live permanently in Britain but do not have citizenship - Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil al-Banna and Jamal Abdulla.

Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, the lawyer for the four Britons, Clive Stafford Smith, wrote to the Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons, calling on the UK to back their bids for legal access and a court hearing. His letter has swung the spotlight on to the Government's recent attacks on the legality of the Pentagon's proposals to try Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi before military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, said they would breach the detainees' basic legal rights and deny them a fair trial. The Prime Minister urged President Bush to hand over the four Britons - a move reportedly being blocked by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Whitehall sources said a decision to support the Britons' court actions would have to be agreed by Mr Blair, Lord Goldsmith, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Such a move would embarrass Mr Bush and put Mr Blair's relations with the White House under severe strain.

However, the role of British intelligence agencies in Guantanamo Bay will come under fresh scrutiny this week at a Court of Appeal hearing into the detention in Britain without trial of 10 men, some for more than two years.

Their lawyers will accuse the Government of illegally using confessions extracted under torture from inmates in Camp Delta to hold the detainees in Belmarsh high security prison as suspected terrorists. The Home Office admits that evidence from Guantanamo may have been used to justify the detentions.