Blair backs US military to try British prisoners

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Tony Blair risked reigniting the row over two British prisoners held at the American military base in Guantanamo Bay when he gave a strong hint yesterday that they will be tried by a US military tribunal, saying British national security was at stake.

As a legal team led by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, prepared to fly to Washington for talks on controversial plans to use a secretive military process to hear the cases Mr Blair insisted that "any military commission [the US] has is subject to rules that I think would be regarded as reasonably strict by anybody".

By making no mention of the possibility that Moazzam Begg, 35, and Feroz Abbasi, 23, would be tried in an American civilian court, Mr Blair appeared to acknowledge that the military hearings would go ahead. Their cases were put on hold after Mr Blair discussed the issue with President George Bush last week.

Although the Prime Minister said repatriation remained an option, ministers doubt whether the intelligence-based evidence against them would make a UK prosecution possible, let alone offer a reasonable prospect of conviction.

Mr Blair's clear hint in an interview with Sky Television that he acceptsthe two British prisoners at Camp Delta in Cuba will be among the six currently facing military hearings at the base will dismay critics in Britain who argue that such tribunals are a breach of the men's human rights.

A motion calling for the men to be repatriated was signed by more than 160 MPs before Parliament broke up for the summer recess last week. Although the men are supposed to be able to choose their own legal representation, the lawyers are to be vetted by the military.

While Mr Blair made clear that Lord Goldsmith would be in detailed discussions on the mode of trial, his overall tone will be seen by critics as contrasting sharply with that of the Foreign Office minister Chris Mullin who told the Commons earlier this month: "We have raised and will continue to raise these reservations energetically with the US."

Critics argue that the hearings planned by the US cannot constitute a fair trial because serving military officers will act as prosecution, judge and jury, and there will be no right of appeal. Lawrence Goldman, the leader of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers in the US, has advised his members not to participate in such hearings because to do so would imply acceptance of the method of trial.

Mr Blair gave no indication about the kind of concessions on the hearings that he expected from the US. He said: "There is a whole series of discussions we are having about that but I don't believe myself that the Americans would want to try these people in a way that was inconsistent with the rules that we have. I think the choice is really for us, frankly, and we have got to look at a whole series of considerations, not least our own national security ..."

The two Britons have, along with four others, been held incommunicado for 18 months since the Afghan campaign.

Mr Abbasi's MP in Croydon Central, Geraint Davies, said last week that he was worried about the mental health of his constituent, a 23-year-old former computer student. There have been 28 reported suicide attempts at the camp since it opened. Mr Begg, from Sparkbrook in Birmingham, was arrested in Pakistan where he had been running an Islamic school.