The Government denied a Cabinet rift over the Guantanamo Bay controversy last night as critics claimed David Blunkett was opposing the return of four British prisoners at the US base.
Louise Christian, lawyer for two of the four men, said Mr Blunkett had prejudiced their case by implying they posed a security threat to Britain. Ms Christian also said the Home Secretary had undermined the efforts of the Foreign Office to get all of the detainees released.
But officials close to Mr Blunkett strongly rejected the criticism, saying he was "of entirely the same view" on the issue as Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, Tony Blair and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General.
"There has been a big discussion about this, but we have always said there are only two options, for them to be sent back or for them to be subject to a trial that accords with international standards," a Home Office official said.
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, stepped up the pressure on the Prime Minister by asking: "How long has the British Government known these men posed no threat? Why haven't we been told until now?"
Downing Street refused to comment, but it is understood Mr Blair is likely to break his silence when he holds his monthly press conference in Downing Street next week.
Rhuhel Ahmed, Tarek Dergoul, Jamal Al Harith, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul were told only last night, 24 hours after the announcement by the Foreign Office, that they were to be released. Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorism Branch was yesterday considering whether any of the five should face arrest or questioning under the Terrorism Act 2000 when they get back to Britain.
But Mr Blunkett stunned many in the legal establishment, and in Whitehall, when he announced on Thursday: "No one who is returned ... will actually be a threat to the security of the British people."
Anthony Scrivener QC, the former chairman of the Bar Council, said the remarks would be "the most quoted words the law this year" because they implied any police action under terror legislation was unnecessary. "That will ensure, with a bit of luck, that every one of them who comes back will get bail," he said.
The American commander of Guantanamo Bay last night said the five British detainees being released had all been suspected of involvement in terrorism. Major-General Geoffrey Miller said the prisoners were now regarded by the US authorities as a "low threat".
But, he said, all the inmates held at Camp Delta in the wake of the war in Afghanistan had been through a thorough screening process before they were detained. The US authorities agreed to release the five following months of wrangling with the British Government after General Miller decided they could provide no further useful information.
The general told the BBC Radio 4 PM programme: "After I believe we have exploited the usable intelligence from the detainee, and he is regarded as being a low threat, I make a recommendation through our higher headquarters, Southern Command, and also the Secretary of Defence, on the transfer of enemy combatants from ... Guantanamo."
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, last night defended the Government's handling of the negotiations with the US administration. "It's far better that we continue to talk to the United States of America than, in a sense, take a particular stance that may make it harder to get a results," he said during a question-and-answer session with students at Edinburgh University.
He told one questioner: "See what happened yesterday as progress being made on a journey where we have got five back; we are continuing to talk about the four."Reuse content