Promise to pursue convictions secures the repatriation of last British inmates

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The Independent Online

The US agreed to free the four Britons from Guantanamo Bay only after it received guarantees that they would be constantly monitored and face an investigation to ascertain whether they can be charged in this country.

The US agreed to free the four Britons from Guantanamo Bay only after it received guarantees that they would be constantly monitored and face an investigation to ascertain whether they can be charged in this country.

The pledge, understood to have been made personally by Tony Blair, appears to have persuaded the White House to return the four men, whom it regards as "enemy combatants". According to senior sources, the matter had been discussed on three occasions by George Bush and Mr Blair since the Prime Minister stated in 2003 that he hoped it would be resolved "shortly". But the US had remained adamant that the four men - Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar - should not be released without some guarantees that they may face trial.

American officials are said to have been disappointed by the treatment of previously released British detainees, including the "Tipton Three", who were released last year when they arrived in the UK after what was seen in Washington as a perfunctory police inquiry.

But families of the detainees waiting to be released, their legal representatives and human rights groups expressed concern yesterday at the prospect of men who have already been held for three years under draconian conditions being immediately arrested when they returned home.

The US administration faces problems of its own over Guantanamo Bay. Last summer the US Supreme Court ruled that all prisoners there had the right to challenge their detention in the US courts.

The Bush administration has blocked this, making it virtually impossible for lawyers to meet their clients. The British detainees were only allowed to see their lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, for the first time two months ago. Under the terms forced on him by the US Justice Department, Mr Stafford-Smith is not permitted to provide anything more than bare details of the meetings. Nevertheless, the failure to find any hard evidence against the detainees, as well as repeated reverses in US courts, have become an embarrassment for Washington.

In October last year, The New York Times reported that the US had come up with an offer that the four detainees could serve their sentences in Britain if they were convicted by a military commission. But the British Government rejected the deal after advice from Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, that the verdicts of such commissions would not be accepted under international law. Yesterday's agreement, with the British guarantee of possible prosecution, is believed to have followed directly from that offer.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, stressed in the Commons yesterday: "Once they are back in the UK, the police will consider whether to arrest them under the Terrorism Act 2000 for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activity ... I should like to assure the House that every practical step will be taken by the relevant UK authorities to maintain national security and to protect public safety." He added that the agreement had been reached following "intensive and complex discussions to address US security concerns ... Following contacts ... in particular between the Prime Minister and his office ... US Secretary of State Colin Powell and me."

Asked whether any conditions were attached to the release, a Downing Street spokesman said: "There are genuine security concerns which we have striven to meet."

An Australian detainee will also be returned to his country. A Pentagon spokesman said: "The governments of the United Kingdom and Australia have accepted responsibility for these individuals and will work to prevent them from engaging in or otherwise supporting terrorist activities in the future.

"The UK and Australian governments have made a number of security assurances to the US government in this regard that was important to the transfer decision ... These detainees are enemy combatants who had been detained by the United States in accordance with the laws of war and US law."

Mr Stafford-Smith, who had acted as US counsel for Mr Begg and Mr Belmar, said he would be "horrified" if the four Britons were not released "in very short order". "Surely they have suffered enough and I expect we'll see them free very soon," he said.

Moazzam Begg's MP, Roger Godsiff, said the Government must answer questions about his constituent's future and that he should be entitled to compensation for the time spent incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Godsiff, the Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath, said: "Jack Straw said to me today that if I wanted to bring [Mr Begg's father] Azmat to see him to discuss the issues ... he's happy to talk to us. Jack Straw looks at this not just as Foreign Secretary but also as a lawyer that it's been totally unsustainable."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, described Guantanamo Bay as a legal no man's land, and said: "The truth is the detention of these men violated all legal principles, that their civil rights were systematically and deliberately abused, and that they were denied due process ... Hasn't this been a damaging episode which should never again be repeated?"

The other Britons accused of al-Qa'ida links

RICHARD BELMAR

Just over a month ago Richard Belmar wrote to his family in north London: "I am still alive, but I don't know if I will ever see you again."

The former postal worker, 25, a Catholic who converted to Islam, had been in solitary confinement at Guantanamo Bay for more than a month and is said to have suffered physical and mental abuse.

A US military tribunal decided last November that Mr Belmar is "a member of, or affiliated with, al-Qa'ida". Papers produced by the US authorities say he confessed to pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden and was captured at an al-Qa'ida safe house in Pakistan. It is also claimed he attended prayer meetings in London held by the cleric Abu Qatada, who was described by Spanish authoritiesas Bin Laden's "emissary in Europe".

Mr Belmar, whose family moved to Britain from St Lucia in the 1960s, told the tribunal his confession about swearing loyalty to Bin Laden had been obtained under duress while being interrogated by US officials at Bagram airbase.

MARTIN MUBANGA

Martin Mubanga, 31, a convert to Islam, has been imprisoned for nearly three years after being arrested in Zambia.

Declassified communication between Mr Mubanga and his American lawyer reveal the detainee, a former London motorcycle courier, to be vigorously objecting to the conditions under which he is being held. He complains of "my continuing sub-human treatment and violation of my religious beliefs and practices". He says: "On 28 November 2004 I was denied the right to use toilet paper. Even though I had no toilet paper or water ... I resorted to blocking the small window in my cell so the MPs, who found the whole thing amusing, could not see in my cell."

He adds: "As well as this they keep some of the brothers in nothing but shorts, day and night, with no screen made available for them when they wish to use the toilet. This from people who respect our religion and our rights as human beings?!"

After leaving school with five GCSEs, he got an NVQ in construction, but failed to find a job. He found himself in Feltham young offenders' institution after being arrested for football hooliganism. There, he was attracted to Islam and began going to a mosque. His sister, Kathleen, said his conversion had upset his Catholic family, but "Islam gave him a sense of identity". In October 2000, he left the country for an Islamic college, or madrassah, in Pakistan.

FEROZ ABBASI

Feroz Abbasi, 24, was the first Briton to be taken to Guantanamo Bay. He left Britain in early 2001 for Afghanistan, telling his mother, Juma, he wanted to "seek Islamic knowledge". His aim, he told the military tribunal in a statement was to "join the Taliban or fight for the sake of Allah in Kashmir".

According to US papers, Mr Abbasi, from Croydon, south London, had undergone extensive military training in Afghanistan and was present there during two visits by Osama bin Laden. Mr Abbasi, it is claimed, was captured at Kandahar airport by Northern Alliance troops with grenades strapped to his legs.

The military tribunal concluded that Mr Abbasi, born in Uganda, was "a member of, or affiliated with, al-Qa'ida". He told the tribunal: "Do not be fooled into thinking that I am perturbed by you classifying me as an 'enemy combatant'. Quite the contrary. I am humbled Allah would honour me so." He said "confessions" were forced out of him and that he had been physically abused.