Prisoners leave behind the razor wire and chains in their 5,000-mile journey from hell

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The Independent Online

It was hardly luxury travel but the five freed Camp Delta prisoners were taking anything they could get as they settled back into standard aircraft passenger seats for their journey home yesterday morning.

It was hardly luxury travel but the five freed Camp Delta prisoners were taking anything they could get as they settled back into standard aircraft passenger seats for their journey home yesterday morning.

For the 8,000-mile inbound flight into Cuba two years ago, the men had been chained to their seats and outnumbered two-to-one by guards armed with stun guns.

The journey out, on board an RAF C-17 military aircraft, was rather different. The webbing normally used for seating inside the RAF C-17 Globemaster plane had been replaced with passenger seats, and the five Britons were given two independent observers ­ including one from the Muslim community ­ and medical staff.

There were also uniformed Metropolitan Police officers, acting as the Government's escort team, and officers from the RAF police and the anti-terrorist branch. The flight was videoed by police and, according to Scotland Yard, offered "a basic level of comfort".

Asif Iqbal, 22, Shafiq Rasul, 26, and 22-year-old Rhuhel Ahmed, all from Tipton, West Midlands, Tareq Dergoul, 26, from east London, and Jamal
al-Harith, 37, a website designer also known as Jamal Udeen, from Manchester, could reflect on two hard years of confinement as the aircraft took off.

They had endured a grim existence in the high-security camp, set in a shallow valley surrounded by low hills dotted with sparse vegetation and scorched by the Caribbean sun. The men were held in chain-link cages with concrete floors, open to the elements and measuring just 6ft by 8ft, as they awaited their fate.

High chain-link fences surrounded the compound, topped by razor wire and covered with green plastic curtains.

Like all prisoners, they were divided into different categories depending on the "risk assessment" provided by the Pentagon or the CIA.

Those judged the most dangerous were kept in solitary confinement, while those considered less threatening were held in cells that adjoin each other. The regime was harsh. They were never allowed to congregate and were moved from cell to cell to prevent cliques forming. Most were allowed to exercise and shower only twice a week, for 15 minutes each time.

A copy of the Koran was about the only personal item the men would have been allowed.

But, last night, the five men got their first glimpse of British soil for two years as they touched down at RAF Northolt in north-west London. Four were arrested by the Metropolitan Police, while al-Harith was held by immigration officials before being released. The four who were arrested were taken to Paddington Green police station in west London, Britain's highest security police station, which has housed some of Europe's most dangerous criminals, including members of the IRA.

As the first television pictures of the men's return to Britain were screened last night, nowhere were they more keenly watched than in the West Midlands town of Tipton, home to three of the five prisoners. But the welcome that awaits them on their return is unlikely to be as warm as they would hope for. On yesterday's evidence, even their Asian contemporaries believe they have some explaining to do.

In Tipton, the most fundamental scepticism about the released prisoners is expressed by older generations of whites, whose views demonstrate why the British National Party has won two local council seats in the past few years. But there are questions arising that many in the Asian community want answered. Taz, 23, a sociology and psychology undergraduate, was as eloquent as the countless other young Muslim men who have passed many a night debating this issue over the past two years. "The first thing we'll ask is how they are, how the others are and how the conditions were," he said. "But there are a lot of questions about them in people's heads."

His Jewish friend, a cultural studies undergraduate, was more inclined to give the three his support. But he does not thank them for indirectly attracting far-right politics to this once anonymous town.

After a heavy police presence on the streets throughout the day, there were rumours in Tipton last night that the British National Party was planning to be out in force.

Some residentsviewed the three men as innocents, caught up in the war on terror after meeting in Pakistan. "They've been held for two years on the basis of a case which has never been published. That's an injustice in anyone's book," one said. Mohammed Toseef, 31, a taxi driver, agreed: "I've known [Iqbal] for 13 years and everybody's glad he's coming home."

For the families of the former US prisoners, preparations for the future have already started. They have put matters in solicitors' hands, posting notices in the windows of their homes asking no one to knock and referring visitors to their lawyers. All the family members remained behind closed doors yesterday.

Rumours of Max Clifford's involvement with the families showed just how far from Guantanamo their sons had come.