Two men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay - both accused of being personal bodyguards to Osama bin Laden, the al-Qa'ida leader - have become the first to face criminal charges, the Pentagon announced yesterday.
Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al-Bahlul from Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi from Sudan were charged with a single count each of conspiracy to commit war crimes and will be tried before a military tribunal, the US Defence Department said. Major John Smith, a Pentagon spokesman, said prosecutors do not plan to seek the death penalty, but said the men could face anything up to life in prison.
Pentagon officials described Mr Qosi as an al-Qa'ida accountant and weapons smuggler who was "a long-time assistant and associate of Bin Laden dating back to the time when Bin Laden lived in Sudan". Mr Bahlul was said to be a "key propagandist who produced videos glorifying the murder of Americans to recruit, inspire and motivate other al-Qa'ida members" to attack Americans, the United States and other countries. Both men also acted as Bin Laden's bodyguards, it was claimed.
Meanwhile the five Britons being released from Guantanamo will have their cases "fast-tracked" by police and prosecution authorities in the next few weeks, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, promised yesterday.
Mr Straw's pledge came as MPs from all parties lined up in the Commons to condemn America's treatment of all detainees at the military base in Cuba. Tony Lloyd, a former Foreign Office minister, attacked the process as "a form of kidnap", while other MPs said they felt "a sense of rage" that the US was holding people for more than two years without trial or access to lawyers.
There was more confusion about the exact threat posed by the returning British prisoners after David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, repeated that the men posed no security risk to the UK. Mr Blunkett told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "From the evidence that I have been given, I do not believe that these five will provide a security risk in our country on their return. Whatever circumstance led them to be in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, it is historic. Whatever they do in the future is a projection, and a prediction by those who have the security knowledge."
Mr Straw said that he was "not going to offer views about the perceived risks of any individuals because by definition that could have the effect of prejudicing future proceedings". He made clear that the five British prisoners - Rhuhel Ahmed, Tareq Dergoul, Jamal al-Harith, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - may be arrested on their return "in connection with possible terrorist activity".
The Foreign Secretary said Mr Blunkett "was talking about what in his judgement had been assessed so far as the past was concerned. He was not seeking to make any judgement about any decisions which are made by the prosecuting authorities or the police on their arrival". Mr Straw added that "it would be reasonable for their cases to be fast-tracked".
Mr Straw said that at all times the Government had insisted that the Americans should either try the detainees in accordance with international standards or send them to the UK. He also appeared to agree with the Labour MP Clive Soley, who warned that the Camp Delta facility in Cuba could foster more terrorist recruits for al-Qa'ida just as the IRA had been bolstered by internment in the 1970s.
Douglas Hogg, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said the detainees' treatment was "a lamentable departure from the rule of law and wholly inconsistent with the fine traditions of the US".
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