Guantanamo Britons win court victory

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Three British residents held in Guantanamo Bay have won a legal battle which could lead to the Government demanding that they are freed by the US.

They were granted leave to seek a court order by a High Court judge with the comment that the United States' view of what constitutes torture "is not the same as ours and doesn't appear to coincide with that of most civilised countries."

The legal decision came on the same day that a United Nations report, backed by the European Parliament and human rights organisations asked for the Guantanamo Bay camp to be shut.

The US rejected the call. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "These are dangerous statements we are talking about there. We know al-Qa'ida terrorists are trying to disseminate false allegations [about torture]."

In London, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil al-Banna and Omar Deghayes were granted permission by Mr Justice Collins to ask the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, to petition US authorities for their release. The case is expected to be heard next month.

The judge said allegations of torture on prisoners at Guantanamo meant they had the right to present a case, saying the Government was under an obligation to act on their behalf.

Nine British nationals who had been detained there have been flown back to the UK and released without charge. As British residents, lawyers for the three detainees argued, they should receive the same degree of protection under British law.

Rabinder Singh QC, for the men and their families, told the judge the case arose out of what had been described by a law lord as the "utter lawlessness at Guantanamo Bay", where prisoners were being detained indefinitely without trial.

The three detainees were long-term residents of the United Kingdom. Mr al-Rawi, 37, an Iraqi national who had lived in Britain since 1985, and his Jordanian business partner Mr al-Banna, who was granted refugee status in 2000, were detained three years ago in Gambia. They were alleged to have been associated with al-Qai'da through their connection with the radical cleric Abu Qatada.

Chris Mullin, a former Foreign Office minister, has said they were seized by CIA agents after a tip-off from British intelligence.

Mr Singh told the court that Mr al-Rawi's contact with Qatada was "expressly approved and encouraged by British intelligence" to whom he supplied information about the cleric.

Intelligence operatives assured Mr al-Rawi that they would intervene and assist him if he faced difficulties, said counsel. However, the Government was unwilling to make material available to him when a hearing on his case was held at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr al-Banna was accused to have been in possession of "a homemade electronic device" at the time of his arrest. The device, the court was told, was in fact a battery charger bought from Argos and cleared by the British authorities before he went to Gambia.

Mr Deghayes was detained in Pakistan after his name was said to be on the FBI's "most wanted" list. But the photograph in his file was of a "totally different individual", said Mr Singh. Mr Deghayes had been rendered virtually blind in one eye by the use of pepper spray and the gouging of his eye during his detention, yet was still being constantly subjected to high light levels.

The Government's counsel, Philip Sales, said Mr Starw had already decided to reconsider Mr al-Rawi's case because of its particular circumstances. But he argued that permission should not be granted in the other cases as the detainees had no British nationality.

Gareth Peirce, solicitor for the three men, said: "After so many years of such bitter disappointment, this is the first ray of light that we have had."

In Washington, the Tory spokesman on foreign affairs, William Hague, warned the White House that America and its allies faced a "critical erosion" of moral authority around the world. Mr Hague said a loss of international goodwill could prove as costly as a military defeat.