US halts terror hearings of Britons in Guantanamo tribunal

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The Independent US

Legal proceedings against two British prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, who could face the death penalty, have been temporarily suspended while officials attempt to broker a deal with the US authorities.

A spokesman for Tony Blair said that after discussions between the Prime Minister and President George Bush, it had been agreed that proceedings would be halted until senior officials met to discuss the case next week.

"There will be no further legal proceedings against the individuals concerned, pending discussions next week involving high-level legal teams in the US led on the UK side by the Attorney General when all aspects of the cases of the nine individuals concerned will be discussed," said a spokesman briefing reporters travelling on Mr Blair's plane as it flew from Washington to Tokyo.

It was announced a fortnight ago that Moazzam Begg, 35, and Feroz Abbasi, 23, two of nine British citizens held at the US naval base on Cuba, were selected to be among the first prisoners to face a military tribunal.

As with the other 650 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, they are accused of supporting the Taliban or al-Qa'ida during the war in Afghanistan.

Tribunal cases would be decided by a panel of three to seven military officers who would act as both judge and jury. Convictions could be handed down by a two-thirds majority vote.

Quite what concession the British officials hope to obtain is unclear, and despite the desire of Downing Street to be seen as having secured an important victory, all they have obtained is an agreement to talk. Repatriation of the two men to face British justice is unlikely because of the poor chances of a successful prosecution. Placing the men in the US civilian justice system would set a precedent. Louise Christian, a solicitor who represents some of the British prisoners, said: "Obviously it's a relief if they are not going to have to face trial in front of these completely unfair military commissions. But it's not a relief if they are going to continue to be held incommunicado without access to a lawyer or to a court in these dreadful conditions."

She added: "They have been there for over 18 months already and it has taken the British Government 18 months to do anything about it. The Government should be demanding immediate access to a lawyer as a bottom line."

Mr Begg has been held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly five months, and was previously detained in Afghanistan for a year, according to the charity Fair Trials Abroad. A spokesman said that Mr Begg, who has four children, was seized in Pakistan in February 2002 and may have been the victim of mistaken identity.

Mr Abbasi has been held in Guantanamo Bay for 18 months. His mother, who last saw him in December 2000, has described him as a computer student who could not have become involved in terrorism.

Zumrati Juma, from Croydon, said that if Mr Blair did not stop the Americans "torturing and killing my son", he would never again be able to say he upheld human rights.

She said: "I was absolutely devastated to find out that my son Feroz is to be paraded before military judges even while they are building an execution chamber next door.

"He may have been foolish but he does not deserve to die.

"He has been held in this place Guantanamo Bay for a year and a half. Feroz is a British citizen. So far the British Government has done nothing for him."

Stephen Jakobi, the director of Fair Trials Abroad said: "There is also a Spaniard, a Dane, a Swede and three Frenchmen sitting in Guantanamo. There are another seven Brits in the pipeline.

"If our Attorney General is flying over, he must make it absolutely clear that no lawyer can possibly concede that the military tribunal can be a solution when the commander in chief has prejudiced the tribunal by his remarks."

At a press conference earlier this week with Mr Blair, President Bush said the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay were "bad people". He added: "Let me just say, these were illegal combatants. They were picked up off the battlefield aiding and abetting the Taliban."