British prisoners at Camp X-Ray may be sent home

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The Independent US

The British Government has welcomed an announcement by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, that Britons being held at Camp X-Ray may be repatriated provided they are tried in this country.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has said in the past that he would prefer for British nationals to be brought here for investigation and any subsequent court cases.

British officials are holding talks with their US counterparts on possible repatriation, and diplomatic sources said yesterday that Mr Rumsfeld's statement indicated that Washington may be close to a decision on the matter.

The US will offer the same deal to some other countries with nationals incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, Mr Rumsfeld said, returned prisoners would have to be made available for questioning by American officials.

The US is holding 300 prisoners, including five Britons, from the Afghan war, all of them with alleged links to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Washington has been criticised by welfare agencies and Western allies for refusing to give the detainees prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions.

Camp X-Ray prisoners were supposed to be tried by US military tribunals. But Mr Rumsfeld said that other countries "can handle the prosecution. I have no desire to fill up our jails and spend time and money holding people".

Repatriating prisoners under strict conditions would be better than "simply turning them loose, putting them back on the streets and having them go get more aeroplanes and flying into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre again", he said. "When we have got out of them the information that we feel appropriate, we will very likely let as many countries as possible have any of their nationals they would like."

Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said: "If the British captives are delivered into the custody of the Government, they can only be prosecuted if there is adequate evidence to show that they have committed criminal offences under our law."

Louise Christian, a solicitor for Zumrati Juma, the mother of Feroz Abbasi, one of the British nationals held at Guantanamo Bay, said her client "wants her son back in this country and what Mr Rumsfeld says shows how much international pressure the US is facing at the moment".

She said: "However, what he is proposing remains unclear. He appears to be demanding the right to insist to British authorities that these people should be prosecuted, rather than the matter being decided according to the evidence."

Mr Abbasi, 22, has sent a letter, the first from a British Camp X-Ray captive, to his family in Croydon, south London, on paper headed "Prisoner of War Mail". In the brief note to his mother, he says: "I put my trust in Allah that he has been keeping you all healthy and well. I am fine and love you all very much. Please do not worry about me."