Jack Straw found himself out of step with Tony Blair yesterday when he called for British al-Qa'ida suspects seized in Afghanistan to be tried in their home country.
The Foreign Secretary spoke out after Washington made clear that three UK nationals held at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could face the death penalty. In a change of approach to the issue, Mr Straw said: "It is far preferable, if they are British citizens, for them to come to the United Kingdom and face justice here." He said the Government was continuing to discuss with the US administration the "exact circumstances" of the cases against the men .
Later, in an apparent refinement of Mr Straw's comments, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "What Jack was saying was that our preference would be for them to be returned here if that is considered to be the most effective way of bringing them to justice.
"The key question at this stage is what is the most effective way and we are talking to the US authorities but this is obviously something that will take time."
Until yesterday, ministers had refused to discuss the fate of the three Britons at Guantanamo Bay, dismissing as "premature" any speculation that they could be brought back. They had also insisted that America, as the country attacked on 11 September, should have first say over how they were tried. But the Government has faced increasing pressure over the conditions in which inmates are being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Given Labour's fierce opposition to the death penalty, ministers have also become alarmed by the threat of UK nations going to the electric chair.
On Wednesday, a delegation of MPs was warned by Glyn Davies, the deputy head of mission at the US embassy in London, that he could not rule out the death penalty for any Guantanamo Bay inmate found guilty of terrorist acts.
The only British prisoner at Camp X-Ray to be named is Feroz Abbasi, 22, from Croydon, south London. The identities of the other two have not been confirmed.
Mr Blair, speaking on BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young programme, said: "At the moment, the status of these people is under discussion, and I really don't have anything more to say than that because there are really tricky and difficult questions of what the status of these prisoners are.
"The most important thing in the medium term is to make sure that they are obviously humanely and properly treated. But I don't think we should forget, if the allegations about these individuals are correct, then they are members of probably the most dangerous terrorist outfit in the world."
Mr Blair said Britain had investigated and dismissed reports of mistreatment at Camp X-Ray. "We sent a team from Britain to see them and the team reported back that the prisoners were not reporting torture or mistreatment of any form," he said.Reuse content