Military tribunals at Guantanamo ruled illegal by US judge

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The Independent US

Relatives of the four Britons held at Guantanamo Bay have demanded that Tony Blair seeks their release when he meets George Bush tomorrow after a US judge found the military tribunals being used to try the prisoners were illegal.

Relatives of the four Britons held at Guantanamo Bay have demanded that Tony Blair seeks their release when he meets George Bush tomorrow after a US judge found the military tribunals being used to try the prisoners were illegal.

On Monday evening, US District Judge James Robertson in Washington ruled that the tribunals should not continue in their present form and that many of the 550 prisoners at the camp were probably prisoners-of-war, eligible for rights under the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration has repeatedly refused to grant the prisoners such rights.

The decision halted the tribunal of the Yemeni Salim Ahmed Hamdan, captured in Afghanistan in 2001 where he had apparently been working as Osama bin Laden's driver. He denies being in al-Qa'ida. Judge Robertson also ruled that Salim should be allowed to confront evidence and witnesses against him, and that he was not put before a competent tribunal to evaluate whether he was entitled to prisoner-of-war status.

Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, said: "Military commissions were a bad idea and an embarrassment. The refusal of the Bush administration to apply the Geneva Conventions was a legal and moral outrage. The refusal led directly to the belief that abuse and torture could be employed at Guantanamo, and in Abu Ghraib."

In Britain, relatives and lawyers for the four Britons in Guantanamo - Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga, Richard Belmar and Moazzam Begg - said the ruling highlighted the inherent unfairness of the system under which prisoners were being held with little or no access to lawyers and no access to the courts.

They urged Mr Blair to ask Mr Bush to release the four; five other Britons were released without charge from Guantanamo Bay this year. Azmat Begg, father of Moazzam Begg, told Reuters: "It's in Blair's hands. If he wanted to, he could sort the whole thing in minutes."

Louise Christian, a lawyer for two of the four Britons, said: "These people have been there for three years now and they deserve to be treated in accordance with international law and the Geneva Conventions. It seems incredible given the amount of support Britain has given to America that their request is not being granted."

This summer, the US Supreme Court ruled that all the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge their incarceration in the US civilian courts. The Bush administration has refused any prisoner their day in court but has set up "combatant-status review tribunals" to assess whether the prisoners should continue to be held. So far, 317 have been held and 131 cases have been adjudicated: all but one found in favour of continued detention.

But yesterday, Guantanamo detainees continued to appear in shackles before tribunals under an American flag tacked to the walls of a trailer. One Yemeni, in a white skullcap, admitted he was a fighter for the Taliban. He said he left school in Yemen, then went to Afghanistan after a religious leader issued a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering Muslims to help the regime.

The US government claims he trained on assault rifles and grenades at the al-Farouq camp, and manned battle-posts in Bagram and Jalalabad. "I didn't do anything against the United States or its allies," said the man, who cannot be named. "I never saw Americans in Afghanistan, so how could I be an enemy combatant?"

The US declared all of the 550 Guantanamo prisoners enemy combatants. Defence lawyers and human rights groups say allegations against detainees do not support classification as enemy combatants.

The US Justice Department said it would seek a stay and an appeal against Judge Robertson's ruling. The tribunals will continue until further guidance is issued, a spokesman, Mark Corallo, said. The government would appeal on the grounds that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to members or affiliates of al-Qa'ida. "We believe the President properly determined that the Geneva Conventions have no legal applicability to members or affiliates of al-Qaida." Mr Corallo claimed the ruling "put terrorism on the same legal footing as legitimate methods of waging war".

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