Straw to demand release of 'MI5 man' in Guantanamo after U-turn

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The Independent Online

In a foreign policy U-turn, Jack Straw has agreed to intervene in the case of a British resident who has been held in Guantanamo Bay for the past three years.

The concession emerged during a court hearing yesterday after lawyers had alleged that the Iraqi-born businessman, who has lived in Britain since 1985, was an MI5 informer.

Until yesterday Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, had said that the British government would not make any representations on behalf of American prisoners who were not British citizens.

The Government maintains that - as foreign nationals - Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna and Omar Deghayes have no legal right to the assistance they seek.

But the judges heard yesterday that the Foreign Office had conceded that representations would be made to the US authorities for the release of Mr al-Rawi because of the particular circumstances of his case.

His lawyers said afterwards that the decision to intervene was only an expedient way of avoiding the publication of sensitive information about MI5's relationship with Mr al-Rawi.

Bisher al-Rawi, 37, and his Jordanian business partner Mr el-Banna, who was granted refugee status in 2000, were detained three years ago in Gambia.

According to statements before the court, they were alleged to have been associated with al-Qa'ida through a connection with the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada.

Mr al-Rawi, who has a wife and five children living in the UK, has always maintained he had contact with Abu Qatada that was "expressly approved and encouraged by British intelligence", to whom he supplied information about the cleric.

He said representatives of security services had assured him that, should he run into trouble, they would intervene and assist him.

Yesterday, Timothy Otty, appearing for the detainees, told the High Court he would not be alleging that the British Government was "knowingly complicit" in the arrest and the detention of the two men. But, he said, documents attached to a statement made by a security service official, referred to as "witness A", established there had been "communications" between the British and US security services, relating to the two men prior to their arrest .

Mr Otty said: "Viewed objectively, and given the nature of these communications, it was foreseeable detention would occur. We will certainly be contending there has been real injustice and there is a causal link on the part of those acting for the UK in that injustice."

Reprieve, the human rights group that has acted for Mr al-Rawi and Mr el-Banna in the US courts, believes the implication of yesterday's decision is clear.

Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel at Reprieve, said: "It's high time that the British government recognised their responsibilities to Bisher al-Rawi. He's always maintained, and the Government has never denied, that he was helping MI5 by acting as a go-between with Abu Qatada.

"That's his only connection and that is why he was detained - because he chose to help British intelligence."

The judges were told yesterday that there is now "compelling evidence" that the three British residents have been "severely tortured and suffered inhuman and degrading treatment."

The men also remained exposed to a "real risk" of further ill treatment at the detention facility in Cuba.

Now that Mr al-Rawi was likely to have a release request made on his behalf, it did not seem too much to ask, against that background, that all three British residents at Guantanamo Bay should receive assistance from the Foreign Office, argued Mr Otty yesterday.

The hearing continues.