Last month, I was in Washington with the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission. We held a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court, whose legend, carved in marble above the portico, reads "Equal Justice Under Law". Our delegation, consisting of families of detainees from Britain, France and Germany, their lawyers, religious leaders from Europe and from America's National Council of Churches, then walked to the White House beneath a sky which changed bewilderingly, minute by minute, from a piercingly cold hailstorm to steaming sunshine. We had letters from the families to the President, asking for justice and human rights for the 660 detainees whose internment without trial contradicts and undermines that equal justice to which the Supreme Court commits America, and which is the bedrock of its constitution.
National security, post 9/11, has elevated the President as commander-in-chief into judge, jury and executioner of the prisoners whom he holds without trial at his naval base in Guantanamo. He appoints the panel of officers who will preside at military tribunals. He alone is the court of appeal against the tribunals' sentences, including sentences of death.
National security, however, also dictates that no physical letters will be received at the White House in case of anthrax or other toxic substances. All communications to the President must be faxed or e-mailed. And, of course, no uninvited visitors are allowed within a certain radius. So our walk took us in a fairly wide arc around the President's mansion and the whole event, as necessary as it was, became in that magnificent setting, somewhat theatrical, played out before the court of public opinion.
The same morning, 8 March, three of our delegation, Terry Waite, my sister Vanessa and I, visited the British embassy. We recalled that at a press conference during George Bush's visit to London last November, he was asked about the British detainees in Guantanamo and said that their release was in Tony Blair's hands. The US saw no obstacle to their release, he said. But evidently there had been some impediment. Could it be, we asked, that the impediment was Mr Blunkett?
By coincidence, Mr Blunkett was in Washington that day for a conference on counter-terrorism. Regrettably, we were unable to see the Home Secretary in person, but a chargé d'affaires at the embassy had some positive news for us. Five British detainees had been released from Guantanamo and were in the air, on their way home, as he spoke. Why had some been released but not others, we asked? The official was unable to say. He could tell us, however, that a Foreign Office delegation was making a welfare visit to Guantanamo that very day. The first such visit, apparently.
Almost a month later, on 1 April, Mr Azmat Begg, Moazzam Begg's father, had a meeting with some officials at the Foreign Office in London. What they told him about his son's welfare was alarming. Moazzam is held in solitary confinement in that part of the prison called Camp Echo. He sees no natural light, and is only removed from his cell for exercise after dark. Prolonged deprivation of natural light can result in serious vitamin deficiency. Moazzam is "withdrawn".
Next Tuesday, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments from the American lawyers who have challenged the administration and the lower court's refusal to grant detainees access to judicial review. The case is joined by 175 British peers and MPs, and by the officers from the US Judge Advocates Group who have been assigned to defend the detainees. These officers argue that military tribunals provide a standard of justice way below the standards even of US military law, let alone process.
Lieutenant Commander Charles Smith and his five comrades have no confidence whatever in these military tribunals and are doing their utmost to challenge them. If our government lent even half an ear to what they say, it would condemn the whole business and insist upon the right of its citizens either to be charged and tried in a British court or else to be released.
It is not too late. The Prime Minister meets Mr Bush today. Mr Blair knows that Jamal al-Harith, Tareq Dergoul, Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul and Rhuhel Ahmed were innocent of involvement in any crime, let alone terrorism. He knew that last November, because his security services had interrogated them several times.
So with the joined-up thinking for which he is famous, the Prime Minister must surmise that the same may be true of the remaining four UK citizens held at Guantanamo - Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar. And also of the five British residents held there - Jamil al-Banna, Bisher al-Rawi, and three others whose identities the Foreign Office refused to disclose.
With his well advertised concern for the verdict of history, Mr Blair may reflect that unless he stirs himself about Guantanamo, he and his friend, the US President, will be judged to have defended democracy by destroying it.Reuse content