Leading article: A belated call to end the injustice

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The Independent Online

Lord Goldsmith is not the first member of the Government to call for the closure of the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. But as the chief legal adviser to the Government, his opinion carries greater weight than those ministers who went before him.

One's first instinct is to ask: what took him so long? Explaining his thinking in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute yesterday, Lord Goldsmith proclaimed: "There are certain principles on which there can be no compromise. Fair trial is one of those." Quite right. But what has changed in this respect since the wire first went up around Guantanamo four years ago? This place was never designed for the purpose of giving suspects a fair trial. Indeed, the site was specifically chosen because it was outside any conventional legal jurisdiction. Are we to assume that Lord Goldsmith has simply chosen to ignore the flagrant illegality of the place up until now?

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to shun a repenting sinner. It is better that the illegality of this place should be recognised belatedly than not at all. We must now wait to see if Tony Blair will follow the lead of the man on whose judgement he placed such importance in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Or will he continue to refer to Guantanamo as an "anomaly" for fear of offending his friend in the Oval Office?

By coincidence or design, this breakthrough comes at a time when the Bush administration's line on the future of Guantanamo appears to be softening. At the weekend, President Bush proclaimed he would like to see the camp closed and that it is simply a matter of waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court later this year. The successful trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in a civilian court for his involvement in the 11 September attacks is partly responsible for this change of approach. It has prompted many Americans to ask why the 480 alleged terrorists of Guantanamo cannot similarly be brought to justice, rather than left to languish in a legal no man's land.

There have been many terrible abuses committed in pursuit of America's "war on terror". But Guantanamo stands as perhaps the most potent symbol of the Bush administration's disregard for international law and the dignity of the individual. Convincing testimony about abuse, some bordering on torture, has come out of the place. It has become a stain on America's reputation.

Every day of its existence diminishes the authority of the US and makes a mockery of its claims to be spreading democracy and freedom. President Bush does not need to wait upon on the verdict of the Supreme Court. He should close Guantanamo now.