Guantanamo review offers hope to British prisoners

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The Independent US

The four British prisoners at Guantanamo Bay could be released after a legal review being carried out behind closed doors by US military officers, a senior British official said yesterday.

The four British prisoners at Guantanamo Bay could be released after a legal review being carried out behind closed doors by US military officers, a senior British official said yesterday.

The official said that the British prisoners could be released and, presumably, allowed home without charge.

Just a few months ago the Bush administration insisted that the four Britons were "too dangerous" to be released.

"[The four] could find themselves released as a result of this process," said the British official.

That process, due to begin next Monday or Tuesday, involves the interviewing by US military officers of more than 600 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to determine the legality of their detention. The initial hearings, or Combatant Status Review Tribunals, will be held in private until arrangements for the press can be made.

The Pentagon announced the hearings after a Supreme Court ruling that the so-called "enemy combatants" - most seized after the US-led war against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan - had the legal right to challenge their detention. Until then the Bush administration had argued that the US had the right to order their detention without access to lawyers or the courts.

Reports suggest that there is likely to be three review tribunals, with three officers sitting on each panel. The panels will conduct one-time-only reviews.

If a panel determines that the prisoner is not an enemy combatant, then the case will be sent to the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to decide whether the detainee should be returned to his country. Detainees still judged to be a danger to the US would continue to be held.

Critics of the process say the hearings are little more than a distraction from the Supreme Court's ruling, which gave the prisoners access to the federal court. The prisoners will be assigned military assistants, but not lawyers, to help to prepare them for their hearings.

"It is a complete scam," said Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer who has filed suits on behalf of the British prisoners, along with three British residents also being held. "It is a total mockery and designed to give them some cover when they eventually release these people."

Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, told CNN: "The Supreme Court ruling requires access to legal representation. This process is an elaborate window-dressing and an attempt to subvert that ruling and the rule of law."

Five Britons were released from Guantanamo Bay in February, but another four remain - Feroz Abbasi, Moazzam Begg, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar. Three British residents, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil al-Banna and Jamal Abdullah, are also being held there.

Last month the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners from President George Bush's "war on terror" could not be held indefinitely without access to the courts. The court's ruling overturned a lower court decision that the prison, on a US naval base in Cuba, was outside the courts' jurisdiction because the base was not on sovereign US territory.

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