Two British al-Qa'ida suspects being held in the American camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may be returned to Britain to face trial.
Downing Street confirmed yesterday that flying the detainees to Britain had been discussed in high-level talks between ministers and members of the Bush administration.
The admission that the Government is pressing for the repatriation of Moazzam Begg, from Birmingham, and Feroz Abbasi, from Croydon, follows an outcry by British politicians from all parties over their treatment. The development was welcomed by the men's families yesterday.
MPs have condemned the decision to hold them without trial and refuse them the right to choose their lawyers or be tried in an open civil court. The issue is seen as a test of Tony Blair's influence with the Americans.
Disquiet over the treatment of the prisoners threatens to sour Anglo-American relations. The detainees are known to have been gagged and handcuffed and were being kept in cages. Execution chambers are also reported to have been built at the base.
Geraint Davies, MP for Croydon Central, has repeatedly called on the Prime Minister to repatriate Mr Abbasi to stop him facing the death penalty. Mr Davies complained that Mr Abbasi's mental health was suffering, which meant he "may not be fit" to face trial or brief a lawyer to mount a proper defence.
At a recent meeting with activists interested in his case, he failed to speak for an hour.
Yesterday, Downing Street, which has until now denied that repatriation is on the agenda, said that it was among "a range of issues" being discussed.
"We have made clear to the US that the detainees should be treated humanely," a spokesman said. "We have got strong reservations about military commissions and those reservations have been raised and will be continued to be raised by the UK."
Mr Blair is expected to raise the issue of the nine UK citizens held at Guantanamo Bay when he meets George Bush for talks shortly. MPs, including Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, have said the issue will be a test of Downing Street's influence over the Bush administration and the nature of the "special relationship" with America.
Kenneth Clarke, the former Tory chancellor, said he was appalled at the treatment of the British suspects.
"I think Blair has showed little sign of having any real influence until now. If Blair has any influence at all he should bring this to an end. My feeling is that they should be repatriated," he said.
The suspects would face a trial under British terrorist laws if they were repatriated. But under the trial being proposed by the US they could be executed if found guilty.
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