Leading article: Suspect behaviour

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The Independent Online

A British resident, Jamil el-Banna, was released from Guantanamo Bay this week. Mr el-Banna had been arrested in The Gambia and flown to the US military detention centre in Cuba. He was never charged, never informed of the evidence against him, and access to his lawyer was sporadic. He was not put on trial. For four and a half years, he was held in degrading conditions. But yesterday morning Mr el-Banna was flown home to Britain where his family, who have campaigned tirelessly for his release, were waiting.

So was Mr el-Banna met with an apology from the British government, which has allowed him to languish for so long, without trial, in a foreign jail? Was he given advice on how to seek compensation from the US? Far from it. He was promptly arrested under a Spanish warrant. Mr el-Banna now faces lengthy court hearings and possible extradition to Spain. Meanwhile, two other British residents returning from Guantanamo, Omar Deghayes and Abdennour Sameur, were arrested under the Terrorism Act. It is unclear whether charges will be brought against them.

This behaviour of the authorities is deeply suspect. Mr el-Banna's lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, had previously tried to encourage Spain to issue an extradition request in an effort to get his client out of Guantanamo, but claims that the authorities in Madrid had shown no interest. How strange, then, that they sprang into action the moment the men were released. The timing is also arguably rather convenient for our own government.

But then our government's behaviour with respect to these men has been shoddy from the start. For years, ministers refused to lobby for their return and made no objection when Washington repeatedly described them as "dangerous". It adamantly refused to recognise that it had a duty to help these men, as British residents, to secure justice.

Hopes were raised for a change of tack when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister this summer. The new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, wrote to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, requesting the return of the men. Success seemed at hand when it was announced that they would be transferred to British soil. But there are now worrying indications that the Government wants to plunge the men into a form of semi-internment, or perhaps deport them.

The liberal argument about how to treat these men and indeed anyone accused of terrorism offences has always been the same. If there is evidence against them, let them be put them on trial. If not, they should be allowed to go free. What is utterly unacceptable is that they should be labelled as terrorists, locked up without charge, and denied protection under the law. The scandalous mistreatment of these men continues, to the lasting shame of our democracy.