A welcome return to British soil - but the internment and torture continues

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The Independent Online

The return of Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar to UK soil means that the last of the British citizens held in the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay have been freed from this disgraceful prison. The release into British custody of these men is a victory for their families who have campaigned for their freedom over the past three years. But it does not mean the scandal of Guantanamo Bay is over - far from it.

The return of Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar to UK soil means that the last of the British citizens held in the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay have been freed from this disgraceful prison. The release into British custody of these men is a victory for their families who have campaigned for their freedom over the past three years. But it does not mean the scandal of Guantanamo Bay is over - far from it.

The release, although entirely welcome, raises urgent questions. The Government has told us virtually nothing about the nature of the deal struck with the Bush administration over their fate. We have a right to know why they were finally released. Was it because they are no longer deemed a threat? Was it a favour for Tony Blair in return for his support for the US President over Iraq?

There are also important questions over how these men were treated by the US military. Moazzam Begg's father claims that his son was kept in solitary confinement for almost three years. Four other Britons, who were released in March, claim they were tortured. If it does turn out that British citizens have been abused, our Government must demand an explanation. Merely securing their release from arbitrary detention cannot be considered enough.

Yesterday's events should not distract us from the fact that more than 500 prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo. There are no signs that this illegal detention centre is to close. In fact, the indications are that the Bush administration's contempt for the international rule of law is, if anything, getting worse. Despite a ruling last year by the US Supreme Court that prisoners have a right to challenge their detention in the American courts, the Bush administration is stepping up its policy of detaining, without charge or trial, those foreign nationals it considers to be enemies.

It is clear that Guantanamo is now the tip of an American gulag of international prisons. Plans are underway to open US jails in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen to interrogate terror suspects. This will guarantee there will be no inconvenient scrutiny by the Red Cross. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, approved the holding of "ghost detainees" in Iraq last year precisely for this purpose.

The dangers of secret detention centres ought to be apparent to all by now. The abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq are well documented. Some of those soldiers responsible for abusing Iraqi prisoners are now being held to account by US military courts. But the grounds are strong for suspecting that the orders to mistreat came from a high level. No senior officers or politicians have resigned. We can only assume that the lessons of Abu Ghraib remain unlearnt by the Bush administration.

Mr Bush's nomination of Alberto Gonzales for the vacant position of Attorney General is further confirmation of this disturbing fact. This is a man who has described the sections of the Geneva Conventions dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war as "obsolete" and "quaint". We now learn that he is willing to accept evidence collected through torture so long as it is done outside the US. Put this immoral legal principle together with the practice of establishing secret jails in foreign countries and we have a profoundly disturbing picture of the way America is conducting its "war on terror".

Far from providing a bulwark against this reckless use of illegal detention, our own Government has chosen to emulate it. The indefinite jailing of a number of foreign nationals in Belmarsh jail, a process which was ruled illegal by the Law Lords last month, is a blight on Britain's history as a civilised nation. We will find out today whether the Home Secretary intends to grant these detainees the same legal rights that the Government demanded for those Britons held in Guantanamo.

The return to Britain of the Guantanamo four is just the start of the process of re-establishing the international rule of law. The battle cannot be considered won until internment without trial and the use of torture to extract information are stamped out - everywhere.

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