Attorney General hits out on Guantanamo

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Britain's most senior law officer antagonised the White House yesterday by declaring that detainees at America's terror camp at Guantanamo Bay were not guaranteed a fair trial.

Britain's most senior law officer antagonised the White House yesterday by declaring that detainees at America's terror camp at Guantanamo Bay were not guaranteed a fair trial.

In outspoken comments reflecting continuing British anger about the status of four Britons held at the US naval base, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, told the International Criminal Law Association that US proposals for military tribunals to try the men were "unacceptable".

Five Britons - Asif Iqbal, 20, Shafiq Rasul, 24, Rhuhel Ahmed, 21, Jamal al-Harith, 35, and Tareq Dergoul, 24 -spent up to two years in US custody at the base, but were handed over to British custody in March. They were quickly freed without charge.

But the four who remain - Feroz Abbasi, 23, Moazzam Begg, 36, Richard Belmar, 23, and Martin Mubanga, 29 - could be tried by a system of military commissions.

President George Bush announced plans for the military commissions in July last year, but the British detainees at the camp were excluded from the process while discussions continued between the US and UK about their future. Lord Goldsmith said: "While we must be flexible and be prepared to countenance some limitation of fundamental rights if properly justified and proportionate, there are certain principles on which there can be no compromise. Fair trial is one of those, which is the reason we in the UK have been unable to accept that the US military tribunals proposed for those detained at Guantanamo Bay offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards."

He warned: "I am unable to accept that the process provides sufficient guarantee of a trial fair in accordance with international standards."

Lord Goldsmith insisted that the Americans were aware of British objections.

In an interview, he told Channel 4: "We looked very hard to see whether there were ways of clarification and changes to the process that would satisfy those standards. Unfortunately we were not able to reach that point of view."

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, admitted that the Government might not succeed in persuading the White House to grant a fair trial to the Britons. "We can certainly set out what is the position of the British Government. We can certainly, as we do on a regular basis, affect the way in which the United States sees those issues," he said.

"But we would have to be realistic. We are not always successful, nor would anyone realistically expect us always to be successful."

While Downing Street indicated that negotiations with the Americans would continue, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell, called for the Government to start legal proceedings to secure the release of the four remaining detainees.

He said: "The logic of the Attorney General's position is overwhelming. The remaining British detainees should be immediately returned to the United Kingdom.

"If there is evidence to justify doing so, they should be put on trial."

He added: "If the positions were reversed, the clamour from the White House and Congress [for the prisoners' release] would be loud and persistent. The British Government should now consider taking legal action in the United States to compel the return of its citizens."

Tony Blair and President Bush attempted to thrash out a deal over the status of detainees in November last year.

Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International, said that Lord Goldsmith's remarks were "welcome though belated".

"The important thing now is that the UK government seriously steps up pressure to speedily secure proper trials or the immediate release of everyone held in Cuba," she said.

David Winnick, a Labour member of the Commons home affairs committee, argued that Mr Blair should raise the issue with Mr Bush at next week's Nato summit. "There is growing impatience among Parliamentarians and outside Westminster with the way the US is acting in this matter," he said.

UN complaint, page 36