Guantanamo Britons left in limbo as talks with US stall

The five men returning to the UK will be interrogated by anti-terrorist police and then released - but the fate of the other four is far from certain, says Severin Carrell
Click to follow

High-level talks over the fate of four Britons still being held without trial in Guantanamo Bay are deadlocked after ministers refused to accept fresh concessions by the Pentagon, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Britain and the US agreed a partial deal last week to release five British men who have been detained at Camp Delta, in Cuba, after months of increasingly intense legal wrangling between Lord Goldsmith QC, the Attorney General, and the US Department of Defence.

The five, including the three so-called "Tipton Taliban" and a website designer, Jamal al-Harith, 35, are expected to be repatriated within the next few weeks. They will be interrogated by anti-terrorism police but are widely expected to be released without charge.

The deal has left four Britons in limbo after discussions about their treatment and release broke down earlier this month. Their lawyers believe at least two of the men, Moazzam Begg, 36, and Feroz Abbasi, 23, will be held for up to another year. They face prosecution before US military courts after confessing to helping al-Qa'ida. But they are at the centre of a protracted dispute between the US and UK governments over their legal rights, as well as internal rows within the Cabinet.

The status of the other two, Richard Belmar, 23, and Martin Mubanga, 29, is even more confused. Mr Mubanga was arrested in Zambia and handed over to the CIA, but little has emerged about their alleged crimes. Ministers believe they should have been included in the release deal announced by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, last week.

There is now growing evidence that the Government is hardening its position on the illegality of the military commissions. Lord Goldsmith rejected concessions last month from the Pentagon as insufficient. Whitehall sources insist he is pressing the US to overhaul plans for military courts, which the Pentagon has refused to do, or release both men without charge - suggesting neither men will actually face a US military court.

US and British lawyers for the two believe their fate will be determined by domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic, since both governments are anxious to prove they are cracking down on Islamist extremism.

Clive Stafford Smith, the British-born defence attorney for Mr Begg in the US, believes neither of the men will be released by George Bush before this year's US presidential elections in November - unless the UK has new anti-terrorism measures in place to ensure they are not immediately released.

One of their British lawyers, Louise Christian, highlighted plans that are being drafted by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to put emergency powers in place which would allow both men to be tried on a lower standard of proof.

Earlier this month, he revealed he wanted new legislation that would allow British-born and foreign suspected terrorists to be jailed on preventative grounds, under a new open-ended offence of "acts preparatory to terrorism". His proposals provoked uproar from MPs and civil liberties' groups, but Ms Christian said she suspects Mr Blunkett has Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi uppermost in his mind.

Both men were amongst the first six of the 660 detainees at Camp Delta to be "designated" as suitable, in June last year, for a military trial. The IoS revealed in December that Mr Begg had apparently confessed to helping a bizarre al-Qa'ida plot to release anthrax over the Houses of Parliament from an unmanned drone aircraft.

Mr Begg, who was already under suspicion by Special Branch in the UK, was arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 for alleged links to al-Qa'ida. Mr Abbasi, a convert to Islam, was found in Afghanistan and arrested as an "unlawful combatant" in January 2002. Neither confession will be admissible in a British court since they were allegedly secured using torture, by a foreign government and without any defence lawyer present. Azmat Begg, Mr Begg's father, said his son's last letter suggested he had lost some fingernails.

Their future is also complicated by suspected links to the controversial detention of 14 alleged foreign terrorists in four British prisons without charge or trial, including Belmarsh, south London, and Woodhill, near Milton Keynes.

The detainees include al-Qa'ida's alleged "spiritual leader" in Europe, Abu Qatada, and Abu Rideh, a Palestinian man who is now in Broadmoor secure hospital after suffering a major breakdown. His psychiatrists have formally urged the Home Office to release him because his continued detention is severely damaging his mental health, said his lawyer, Gareth Peirce.

Confessions and information extracted from several of the British detainees at Camp Delta are believed to have played a role in the arrests of many of the Belmarsh and Woodhill detainees. That evidence,which would be unacceptable to an English judge, is believed to have formed a substantial element of a secret file of evidence used by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which last year upheld Mr Blunkett's powers to hold the men without trial. Ms Peirce said the release of the Camp Delta detainees could allow defence lawyers to prove that their evidence was obtained using illegal interrogation methods - undermining Mr Blunkett's case to continue holding many of the Belmarsh detainees. The British detainees could also claim their confessions were false, she added. "There are serious questions as to what that evidence is and where it comes from," she said.

Mr Blunkett will submit to a Commons debate this week on the 2001 emergency powers, which have allowed him to detain the 14 suspects for more than two years, after an influential committee of Privy Councillors accused him in December of violating their human rights. The Home Secretary is under pressure from Law Lords, the Law Society, MPs and his own advisers to release the men. Earlier this month, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, appointed by Mr Blunkett to review his emergency powers, urged the Home Secretary either to deport them or release them under "suspended detention" - keeping them in the community under intense surveillance and heavy restrictions.

Ms Christian, who acts for Mr Abbasi, Mr Mubanga and Tarek Dergoul, 24, the fifth returning Briton, said she suspected this legal predicament was at the heart of the failure to get the remaining Britons released. Mr Blunkett, she said, would not allow them back in the UK unless he had powers to arrest and charge them - powers he wants to introduce. "He's making noises about lowering the standard of proof, using something called pre-emptive trial," she said. "My feeling is that it is more likely the British Government has decided not to bring them back again."

Azmat Begg, a retired bank manager, said: "I'm totally confused about why my son hasn't been released. If they've no evidence against him, he should be released. If they have, he should be sent back home, put him behind bars but give him all his human rights, and have him examined by an independent medical board. If he's fit to answer questions, he should be tried and should be punished if he's done something wrong. But keeping him in Cuba like an animal isn't right."

The families: Sanctuary in safe house awaits freed suspects

Relatives of the five Britons being released from Guantanamo Bay are exploring plans to put the men in safe houses, to keep them from the media, potential retaliation and give them time to recover from their ordeal.

The five men are expected home next month after spending two years in cages and concrete cells at the US Marines base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, often in solitary confinement and with only heavily restricted contact with other detainees.

As a result, their families, lawyers and civil rights groups are extremely worried about their mental and physical condition - but are unlikely to be given any details about their health before they return home.

Several have suffered major injuries. One, Tarek Dergoul, 24, from East London, is believed to have lost an arm after being wounded in the fighting in Afghanistan, and suffered frostbite. Others have complained of mental illness and malnutrition.

The so-called "Tipton Taliban", Shafiq Rasul, 24, Ruhal Ahmed, 21, and Asif Iqbal, 20, are also believed to have been held in the notorious Northern Alliance prison of Shebarghan for at least two months. The jail was racked by disease and food shortages, before being handed over to US forces in January.

Mr Rasul's brother, Habib, told The Independent on Sunday that the family is planning to take his brother to a safe house in another city. They intend to raise money by selling his story to a major national newspaper.

The Rasuls have also discussed proposals for him to share the safe house with his close friend and neighbour Asif Iqbal. The decision to sell Mr Rasul's story is motivated by their anxiety about his mental and physical state. They believe it is highly unlikely he will be compensated or be properly cared for by the NHS.

They also suspect he will be extremely angry about his treatment.

"Being held in Guantanamo Bay for two years, you don't know what his mental attitude to the outside world will be," Habib Rasul said. "He has been held and tortured, and he's not going to take that lightly. It all depends on his mental condition." The Rasuls are understood to have already agreed a newspaper deal, and the families of other detainees are expected to follow suit.

Riasoth Ahmed, the Bangladesh-born father of Ruhal Ahmed, the third man from Tipton, said he did not know whether to throw a party to celebrate his son's release or just prepare for a deeply traumatised man to return home.

"I'm happy and I'm a bit scared as well," he said. "It has been very stressful - I don't know what will happen."

Comments