So that's it. Should we forget Guantanamo now?

The subject on the front page of every newspaper was not even mentioned at the dispatch box
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The Independent Online

The released prisoners from Guantanamo Bay don't stand a chance now in Britain. Not because what happened to them in Camp X-Ray - although that was probably awful enough. Or even because of the people who may look on them with suspicion from now on. But because of the media circus here.

The released prisoners from Guantanamo Bay don't stand a chance now in Britain. Not because what happened to them in Camp X-Ray - although that was probably awful enough. Or even because of the people who may look on them with suspicion from now on. But because of the media circus here.

With the frenetic competition for their stories, they will hardly be able to move for the cameras in the next few weeks, while the offers for the exclusive interviews and the ghost-written story will net them small fortunes, depending on what they are prepared to let out in their name. And after the few weeks is over? They will be dropped, to return to a life too changed by their experiences to adjust to.

But then if they will be forgotten, so even more will the four British prisoners who have been left behind in Cuba to face military tribunals for crimes we know not of, under legal safeguards hardly worth thinking of.

The harsh truth of media life is that the prisoners released this week will satiate the media appetite for stories about conditions in the prison and the joys, or otherwise, of homecoming. There will be no particular interest in those left behind. Worse, the mere fact that they have not been released will give them the pall of men who have clearly done something wrong.

And if you think that this is too bleak a prediction, then look at the headline in yesterday's Times: "Home and free: all Camp X-Ray Britons may be out by Friday." So that's that, then. The abandoned four no longerexist. Then go to Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, when the subject on the front page of every newspaper and the lead item of every newscast was not even mentioned in Tony Blair's grilling at the dispatch box: not a query about what happens to the remaining four, not a vague note of concern about the manner in which four of the five returned prisoners were put straight into a police station for 48 hours of questioning before release. And all to please the Americans, to make it look as if the behaviour of these men warranted imprisonment without charge and without access to lawyers for a full two years.

Not the least disgrace of this shameful, and still unresolved, episode is the way that the British parliamentary system has so failed to rise to the legal outrage. Besides Charles Kennedy of the Lib Dems and a couple (although not all) of the prisoner's local MPs, the Government's evasions and half-truths have gone unchallenged in the home of democracy. Because it concerned the intimacies of our relationship with our closest ally, and because it came under the politically-charged phrase "terrorism", it seemed as if politicians found it embarrassing to ask.

Why? Cast aside even questions of legality, the simple fact is that we fought alongside the Americans yet our nationals taken prisoner were treated quite differently. The sole American, John Walker Lindh, was sent to be tried in the US courts with the full protection of the US constitution and its legal system. British nationals, on the other hand, were flown to Guantanamo Bay with none of these protections. Even at the most basic level of fair dealing between allies, what has happened to these men is intolerable.

To our shame, we've long since given up the claim that we're even concerned about our own citizens. Indeed we're up to the same tricks with foreign nationals at Belmarsh. The US Supreme Court is now considering the whole question of Guantanamo's extra-legal status as a result of American lawyers acting to protect the rights of non-Americans, while the British government, whose citizens are among those non-Americans, is sitting on its hands declaring "well, we're trying to do our best, but we have to be discreet about it as we don't have much leverage." Discreet? Lacking in leverage? When we're talking with our own allies?

And all this, it should be said, while our own Home Secretary was actually in Washington sitting there like a pudding during the release and arguing that the remaining prisoners were better tried in Guantanamo because that was where they had been interrogated. In which case, why interrogate the released men again in Paddington Green? And why bother sending intelligence officers to Guantanamo?

It's the sheer lack of principle of our government that angers one, the casual way in which 300 years of defining rights is cast aside as if it was irrelevant to the present. Of course terrorism presents new challenges and difficult decisions. But there's nothing new about the legal dilemmas. We've had them again and again when the security of the state has been threatened. Charles James Fox stormed out of the Commons (a mistake) saying that parliamentary debate was impossible under William Pitt's anti-subversion legislation. Would that Michael Howard was the man to do the same.

When Donald Rumsfeld said cheerfully this week that why should we worry about detainees when, for two years, they had been prevented from committing outrages ("which can't be bad, can it?"), he was declaring that the doctrine of pre-emptive action applied to other countries is now going to be applied to our own citizens.

And what do we have to say about it? Nothing.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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