Blair to challenge Bush over Britons held at Camp Delta

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will challenge President George Bush next week over the fate of the Britons being held in Guantanamo Bay as disquiet over their legal status grows among opposition parties and Labour backbenchers.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, demanded that Mr Blair use the first leg of a round-the-world diplomatic tour next week to press President Bush for the detainees' return.

Mr Blair will give a historic joint address to Congress on Thursday before holding talks with President Bush at the start of a week-long trip that will take in Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong.

Downing Street said yesterday that repatriation was bring discussed as one option for the two British detainees, Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, but insisted that other options were being considered.

More than 200 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for the British prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to be brought back to Britain for trial.

Yesterday the leader of barristers in England and Wales, Matthias Kelly QC, made a formal request for Foreign Office funding for a legal team to travel to Guantanamo Bay.

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, Mr Kelly asked for financial support for barristers intending to act as independent observers at the military tribunals at which the US wants to try Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi. The men are among 700 terrorist suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Kelly said: "The English Bar has an effective record of observing contentious or politicised trials. I have very real concerns about the integrity of the proposed Guantanamo hearings. Mr Kennedy told BBC Radio 4: "Mr Blair has got to point out this is not a personal favour or something that represents the interests of his Government, but an affront to more than 200 MPs of all parties who have signed a motion in the House of Commons and a huge cross-section of legal opinion in the House of Lords."

The row came as the British Government was accused of abandoning two London-based businessmen held at Guantanamo Bay, Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi national, and Jamil al-Banna a Jordanian citizen.

Vera Baird, QC, Labour MP for Redcar, wrote to Mr Blair yesterday urging him to insist "in the strongest possible terms" that President Bush allow the British detainees to return home for a full trial.

She said: "If they are going to insist on trying people in what is frankly a kangaroo court, justice will not be seen to be done.

She added: "The prospect of somebody being sent for trial in a court, which as I understand it will be appointed by Donald Rumsfeld [the US Defence Secretary], which consists of military officers and where people will be defended by military officers who can be sacked at will, is very worrying."

Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, said: "Mr Blair has got to get these people out of there. If we were holding nine Americans for 18 months they would be appalled."

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, said "This is one issue on which he has to grasp the nettle. He must lay the law down to Bush."

Geraint Davies, Labour MP for Croydon Central, said: "What we need is the intervention of President Bush." He warned: "This will threaten the security of Americans across the globe who could now face copycat kangaroo courts and summary execution."

Lord Morris, a former attorney general, said: "I would have thought the more heinous the allegations, the greater the need that we should all heed the precept that justice should be seen to be done and should actually be done."

The shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, demanded to know whether the issue had been raised with the US administration.

Mr Ancram said: "The Government must come clean on when it first discussed the possibility of repatriation of British prisoners with the US and on whether at any time the Government have shown themselves less than willing to consider it."

SWEDISH DEMANDS

Mehdi Muhammed Ghezali, 23, is among 700 prisoners at Guantanamo on suspicion of involvement with Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network.

Last year Mr Ghezali's father built a metal cage in a central Stockholm square and began a hunger strike to demand the release of his son. "I will live here, day and night, and be on hunger strike," Mehdi Ghezali, 57, said. "I demand that my son be allowed to return to Sweden."

His actions provoked Swedish ministers into demanding that the United States provide proof of the allegations or set free the suspect. They have also handed a list of questions to the US ambassador to Sweden. One million of Sweden's nine million people are immigrants, almost half of them Muslims. Few other European countries have taken such public steps.

Robert Verkaik

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