Guantanamo families accuse Blair of blocking release

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The Independent Online

Families of the British detainees held in Guantanamo Bay have accused the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary of blocking their sons' early release from prison.

The claim was made after a senior American official told reporters that his government had dropped its demand that all nine Britons should stand trial if they were repatriated.

Pierre-Richard Prosper, the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, said that if Britain could safely "manage" the terrorist risk the men are alleged to pose then it would not be necessary to charge them with criminal offences.

He said seven of the nine British suspects had been assessed as posing a "medium risk" in terms of future terrorist activity. The remaining two were described as "high risk."

Louise Christian, solicitor for three of the nine families, identified the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, as the only obstacle to the men's release.

"I think the US has been prepared to release them without a trial but the British Government has been acting as an obstacle to them being returned," she said. "It's been the case for some time that the Government is opposed and the feeling has been that David Blunkett is the reason."

Ms Christian said that she suspected Mr Blunkett was concerned that he may be criticised if the suspects, who have been held for two years, were not charged with criminal offences in this country.

These fears were partly confirmed when the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, yesterday demanded that all detainees face the "full rigour of the law" when they are sent home.

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, he suggested that they should be put on trial for treason.

His letter said: "We agree, however, with Pierre-Richard Prosper ... that, if returned and if there is sufficient evidence, they should face the full rigour of the law in this country."

Mr Prosper indicated that in the cases of Feroz Abbasi, from Croydon, and Moazzam Begg, from Birmingham, the Americans were not prepared to soften their stance. He said they had been classified as "high risk" and needed more stringent management that could only be guaranteed if they were tried by the Americans.

But Ms Christian said it would be an "absolute betrayal" by the British Government if any of the detainees were treated separately and sent before the US military commissions.

Azmat Begg, 65, a retired bank manager and father of Moazzam Begg, blamed the Prime Minister for the failure to help his son.

"It has nothing to do with the Americans. Mr Bush said last year: 'It's nothing to do with me, it's to do with Mr Blair'. I think they want to keep my son in Guantanamo because of all the noise I have been making about his detention."

Mr Begg said the letters he had received from Guantanamo Bay suggested that his son was not in a "presentable condition" to be released. "He's complained about marks and bruises on his body and something to do with his fingernails, which may be evidence of torture."

Mr Begg said he was shocked that the Americans had categorised his son as a high-risk terrorist.

"How can it be that he is high-risk detainee? My son couldn't hurt a fly. He lived in this country for 35 years and did nothing wrong. Suddenly he's capable of destroying the White House or harming the President. They've been investigating for two years but haven't come up with any evidence against him."

The Americans have suggested that if the British can place the detainees under close police surveillance this might satisfy them that the British were "managing the threat."

Mr Begg said his son would "happily" comply with any legal request to control his movements in this country.

The British prisoners

CATEGORY 1: HIGH-RISK

Moazzam Begg, 35, from Birmingham, was seized by Pakistani security forces in Islamabad in February 2002 and handed to the US military.

Feroz Abbasi, 23, from London. Captured by US forces in Afganistan in December 2001. Born in Uganda and came to Britain when he was eight.

CATEGORY 2: MEDIUM-RISK

Shafiq Rasul; a 24-year-old law student from Tipton, West Midlands, was captured by the Northern Alliance, and handed to the US in Afghanistan in December 2001

Asif Iqbal, 20, a parcel depot worker from Tipton. Held in Afghanistan. He went to Pakistan with his father, Mohammed, to find a wife.

Ruhal Ahmed, 20, from Tipton. Captured in Kandahar. Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed were classmates in Tipton.

Jamal Udeen, a website designer, aged 35, from Hulme, near Manchester. Arrested in Afghanistan. Claims he was travelling and got caught up in the fighting.

Tarek Dergoul: a 24-year-old former care worker from east London. Arrested in Afghanistan.

Martin Mubanga, 29, a motorcyle courier from west London. His father is a Zambian government official. It is believed he was handed over to the US by Zambia.

Richard Belmar, 24, who attended a Catholic school in north London, and converted to Islam in his teens, after his elder brother. He worshipped at Regent's Park mosque, close to his home in Maida Vale, London.