Row over MI5 mission to Cuba prison

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The Independent US

The Government faced a growing human rights row after MI5 agents were sent to Cuba to interrogate three British al-Qa'ida suspects over possible future terrorist attacks in this country.

The Government faced a growing human rights row after MI5 agents were sent to Cuba to interrogate three British al-Qa'ida suspects over possible future terrorist attacks in this country.

They joined a party of Foreign Office officials dispatched to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay to check on reports the suspects have been held in barbaric conditions. In an attempt to track down more details of terror networks in Britain and abroad, the MI5 team questioned the Muslim men on how they were recruited and their links with other alleged terrorists.

But MPs, lawyers and Amnesty International complained the interrogation could have breached the suspects' human rights and that the divide between providing diplomatic assistance and interrogation had become worryingly blurred. A senior MP said he would raise the issue as a matter of urgency in the Commons on Monday.

The security service will continue questioning the suspects today while Foreign Office staff monitor their welfare.

The names of the three have been checked in Britain and the intelligence agencies are confident they are UK citizens. About four more British Muslims accused of supporting al-Qa'ida and the Taliban regime are expected to be sent to the prison in the next few weeks.

Downing Street confirmed a team of British officials were in Cuba "to help the process of identification, report on the welfare of the British detainees and help US authorities".

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "There needs to be much more clarification about the role and function of these 'officials'. No matter how heinous the accusation, the British Government has a duty to its citizens to ensure their legitimate human rights are neither diluted nor ignored."

Labour MP Tam Dalyell, the father of the House of Commons, said he would challenge ministers on the subject.

He said: "There is a tremendous difference between investigation on the one hand and the consular role on the other. We are showing Western justice to the world. The Government should play it by the book. The impression it presents is that we are not altogether much superior to the Taliban."

Doug Henderson, a former Armed Forces Minister, said: "It's common sense that if someone is there in an interrogation role, they should not be providing legal or diplomatic representation to British citizens." He said it would be "outrageous" if American nationals suspected of al-Qa'ida links had better treatment than their British counterparts by receiving proper legal advice.

Amnesty International said it was concerned at confusion of the lines between consular advice and interrogation. A spokesman said: "It is worrying that the two issues are blurred."

Stephen Jakobi, director of the pressure group Fair Trails Abroad, said mixing the role of consular officials and investigators would represent a "flagrant breach" of international law and government policy. "This needs to be clarified. It might be all above board, but has to be seen to be above board," he said.

Meanwhile, detectives were questioning 17 people arrested in the UK's largest round-up of terrorist suspects since 11 September. The group were being held in Leicester where they were being interviewed about links to al-Qa'ida. Nine of the group, all men aged 23 to 40, have been arrested for suspected terrorism offences. The others, including two women, are being held in connection with immigration matters.

Police have searched six addresses in Leicester and one in London, while forensic scientists were examining two homes in Leicester yesterday.

Another two men – Baghdad Meziane, 36, and Brahim Bemerzouga, 30 – appeared before Leicester magistrates on Thursday accused of being members of al-Qa'ida. A third, Kamel Daoudi, 23, was deported to France to face charges of plotting to blow up the US embassy in Paris. Another suspect, Djamel Beghal, 35, who is accused of recruiting for al- Qa'ida, is being held in France.

The British shoe-bomb suspect, Richard Reid, pleaded not guilty yesterday to nine charges he faces after allegedly trying to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami last month.