Two Britons at Guantanamo face the death penalty

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The Independent US

Two Britons held at Guantanamo Bay face a possible death penalty after being named among the first group of prisoners likely to be tried before secretive US military tribunals. Feroz Abbasi, 23, and Moazzam Begg, 35, are accused of links to al-Qa'ida and are among six suspects identified by the Bush administration to face military justice.

A decision on charges will be decided later but yesterday's move was condemned by families, lawyers and pressure groups as an attempt by the US administration to undermine international law. The men have already been denied the right to a normal trial after US authorities designated them "unlawful combatants", to the fury of human rights groups.

Stephen Jakobi, director of the pressure group Fair Trials Abroad, said the tribunals were designed to secure convictions. "The whole Cuban exercise has become a failed and cynical public relations stunt," he said. "After 18 months, six people out of more than 600 are to be tried and the rules have to be fixed, otherwise there might be no convictions."

Mr Abbasi, from Croydon, south London, and Mr Begg, of Birmingham who has four children, are among nine British nationals at the maximum-security Camp Delta in Cuba. There was no news on the fate of the remaining seven.

Mr Begg has been at Guantanamo Bay for four months. He had been detained in Afghan-istan for a year after being taken by Pakistani special forces from his rented home in Islamabad. His family claim he was a victim of a mistaken identity and had planned to teach the poor in Afghanistan.

His father, Azmat Begg, 63, said yesterday he did not believe his son would get a fair trial. "The trial will be military, the judge will be military and yet my son is a civilian," he said. "This is just not right."

Mr Abbasi was among of the first people moved to Cuba 18 months ago and was described by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as one of the hard core of al-Qa'ida terrorists. Louise Christian, the solicitor for Mr Abbasi, criticised the "victor's justice" and said: "It's extremely surprising and shocking that British participation in the war against terrorism means nothing in terms of the fundamental human rights of British citizens."

David Hicks, an Australian, was also revealed to be among the group of six. The identities of the other three are unknown and their names have not been released by the US. Pentagon officials said the six were alleged to be either linked to terrorist training camps or fund-raising or recruitment.

The tribunals will have up to seven military officers acting as judge and jury with the power to sentence to death by unanimous consent. The appointments are made by the US Department of Defence and the process applies only to non-US nationals and denies appeals to independent courts.

Last night, US chief defence lawyer for Guantanamo Bay Colonel Will Gunn told the BBC's Newsnight: "As we go into this process, the ability for an individual accused person to feel comfortable with their lawyers is something I'm extremely concerned about.We will have a cultural divide which will take us time to overcome, if we're ever able to overcome it. But with respect to that what I'm convinced of is that we have people on the staff who are going to make use of all the resources in order to provide the very best possible defence for such an individual. This country has long said we're about justice being done. That's what the principle of Americanism means to many people.

But Neil Durkin of Amnesty International said: "This development is worrying. The outline plan for the military commissions shows they are discriminatory, as they apply only to non-US nationals, and seem to afford a second-class form of justice." The Government came under renewed pressure last night to press the US for concessions. At the time of the first detentions in Guantanamo Bay 18 months ago, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said he wanted British to be citizens tried in the UK.

But the latest legal moves have made that impossible, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean said yesterday. Lady Symons, who is to meet Ms Christian and Mrs Zumrati Juma, the mother of Mr Abbasi, on Monday, said she would press the US hard over the rights of the Britons. "The fact is that I can't alter the legal processes in the US," she said.

The military commissions are to be given "wide latitude in sentencing", and, "any lawful punishment or condition of punishment is authorised, including death".

Mrs Juma lost a court battle last year to compel Mr Straw to intervene and make diplomatic protests to Washington.

The men facing trial in Guantanamo Bay


Moazzam Begg left Britain nearly two years ago to make a new life for his family in Afghanistan and set up a school to teach the poor, his family said.

Mr Begg, 35, was in Kabul but fled over the border and rented a home in Islamabad, Pakistan, after the start of the US bombing.

He lived there with his wife, Sally, and three children until he was taken in February last year by Pakistani and US intelligence officers, friends claimed.

His father, Azmat, said he received a phone call from his son as he was being taken away in the boot of a car but the phone went dead. He later learned that his son was being held by the Americans in Afghanistan but legal attempts to return him to Pakistan failed.

Mr Begg is believed to have been seized after the discovery of a photocopy of a money transfer order found in an al-Qa'ida camp that asked for a London bank to credit the account of a Moazzam Begg in Karachi.

His supporters say the arrest was a case of mistaken identity and have campaigned for his release. His wife said he went only to teach and help the poor, and that he hated terrorism.

Mr Begg, a Muslim scholar and translator, had his home and bookshop raided before leaving Birmingham. Since his detention, his family home in Britain has been raided and computer equipment has been seized.

The Begg family was one of dozens of British families to emigrate to Afghanistan before 11 September. While being held in Islamabad, Mr Begg became a father for the fourth time - he has two young boys and two young girls - but the family has returned to live in Britain.

While in Afghanistan, he was held for a year in a hangar at Bagram air base, without access to consular staff, and his family became concerned for his state of mind. In one letter to them he wrote: "I'm losing the fight against depression and feel hopeless. I do not complain about my treatment but I've not seen the sun, sky and moon for nearly a year."

In February this year, Mr Begg was transferred from Bagram air base to Guantanamo Bay. His father said yesterday: "My son was never involved in al-Qa'ida. He is a proper family man."


Feroz Abbasi, from Croydon, was a talented student and a strong athlete who told friends that he wanted to become the first black astronaut from Britain.

To his teachers, he was well behaved and courteous. But by the middle of 1999, he had dropped out of mainstream education and turned towards hardline Islamist thinking with visits to the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, led by the fiery imam Abu Hamza at the time.

His family last saw him in December 2000 and had no idea that he was in Afghanistan until they heard that he had been seized in Kunduz and taken to a US compound in Kandahar.

He became one of the first people to be taken shackled and hooded to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He was, said Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, one of the "very tough, hard-core, well-trained terrorists".

Born to Muslim parents in Uganda, he moved to Britain with his mother, Zumrati Juma, aged eight. He did well at school and went on to study A-levels and a computer course. But as he became disenchanted with life, he dropped out. He went to the Croydon mosque and from there went to Finsbury Park, where he is thought to have been filmed by Special Branch officers watching the mosque. He stopped wearing Western clothes and friends reported that he had become much more at ease with the world.

Before Mr Abbasi left Britain, he told school friends why he supported some militants. He has been interrogated extensively at Guantanamo Bay. He wrote to his family: "I have hope in Allah that you all are well and good. I have sent many messages out to you but received none yet so far ... I have hope in Allah that their contents are full of good news and blessings from Allah."

Geraint Davies, his constituency MP, said there were now serious concerns about his mental health. On the last visit by the British authorities to his tiny cell, he refused to speak. In the most recent legal attempt to free him from Camp Delta, three senior judges said his detention was "objectionable" and he was in a "legal black hole". But the court said the Government could not be forced to intervene in his case.

Profiles by Paul Peachey