Britain must act to help the men in Guantanamo

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The Independent Online

Anyone who has had to deal with the Foreign office and Number 10 over arrested journalists or brutalised nationals abroad knows the score. Officials are ever so sympathetic in private and ministers ever so firm in their resolution when answering questions in the House. Yes, they will make representations to the foreign government concerned. But, no, best not to rock the boat too much. Quiet diplomacy is best.

And somehow nothing happens. The hapless prisoner languishes, and all the behind-the-scenes pressure, if any, ends with another injustice perpetrated on an unprotected Briton.

I'm beginning to suspect the same is going to happen with the British nationals incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. When President Bush announced last week that six prisoners, including two British citizens, were now "designated" as having charges being prepared against them under a military commission, the Foreign Office was high in its dudgeon. Lady Symonds, the Foreign Office Minister, declared the Government's "serious reservations" about the the military procedures and promised "a very vigorous discussion with the US about securing a fair trial for the individuals".

Mr Blair was said to be ready to raise it with President Bush directly, and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, let it be known that he had pushed the question with Colin Powell. Straw had even suggested some months ago that he might like to see British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay brought back for trial here rather than under a military commission there.

But then... silence. When the Prime Minister was asked about it yesterday in the Commons by both Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, and one of the prisoners' MPs, he evaded the question altogether, declaring his belief in a "fair" trail but offering no hint of criticism of the US or any intention to do much about it.

Calls to the Foreign Office are met with a mish-mash of evasions and weasel words. The "vigorous discussions" are now redefined as "raising our concerns". Any suggestion of the British Government supporting repatriation has been dropped. Questions about the unfortunate duo - Feroz Abbasi, 23, from Croydon and Mozzam Begg, 35 - are blocked by a refusal to "discuss individual cases". As for any inquiry about when charges might be brought and a trial might take place, the answer is: "You'll have to ask the Americans that."

This is simply not good enough. Forget for a moment the whole dubious business about the retention of some 680 men described as "unlawful combatants" and kept in a US base beyond the remit of American or international law. Forget too the question of how Guantanamo prisoners, some as young as 13, have been kept as long as 20 months without a lawyer, without charges and with only limited communication with the outside world.

It may not be brutal treatment or even in breach of the Geneva Conventions (although that is debatable). But it is clearly meant to dehumanise the prisoners and to isolate them, the better to extract information and keep them docile. As for trials, these too are presumably meant to be summary and exemplary, meted out on individuals who seem to be largely small fry, most of whom would probably be freed if they were brought before civil courts in the US or the UK or before an international court.

Which is precisely the point about these two British citizens. We do not know precisely what they did, or what they may be accused of. They may have been naive idealists swept up in the tide of Islamist affairs; they - either or both - may have been more ruthless recruits to al-Qa'ida. Or they may have been none of these things but, as their parents believe, victims of the accident of place or of mistaken identity. In the hidden world of Pentagon procedures, you may be charged with being a member of al-Qa'ida or helping the Taliban, found guilty and find yourself facing the death penalty.

But the law - international, British or mainland American - requires something much more precise and more answerable than this. It demands that specific charges be brought, that the accused is presumed innocent until proven otherwise and that he has the right to his own legal advice and access to the prosecution evidence, the right for his case to be heard by a jury of his peers and the right of appeal. And, if he is a UK citizen, he has the right to the full support and assistance of the British state.

And that is what he is not going to get, however many gestures to "fairness" and due process under a US military commission in Guantanamo unless the British Government gets them repatriated for trial here.

Tony Blair can put the pressure. These are, after all, citizens of a country that fought with America in Afghanistan and Iraq. For British ministers to declare openly their concerns for a fair trial and a repatriation of the accused would carry weight, in the press and in Washington. As so often in the post-11 September world, we betray our own friends in America by being so nervous of offending the Bush administration. There are lawyers and legislators in the US just as concerned as we are by this impending travesty of justice. It would be difficult for Bush to refuse real public pressure from his ally.

That is, if Mr Blair really wants to apply it.