The return of the last British detainees will not end the disgrace of Guantanamo

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In hailing the announcement that the four British detainees remaining at Guantanamo are to be released in the coming weeks, we can only echo the response from the men's lawyers and from Amnesty International: the news is thoroughly welcome - but long, long overdue. That the men are to be released without appearing before one of the deeply suspect US military tribunals may be a result of what the Foreign Secretary described yesterday as "intensive and complex discussions" between officials of both countries. Equally, however, it may also reflect the lack of any compelling evidence against them.

In hailing the announcement that the four British detainees remaining at Guantanamo are to be released in the coming weeks, we can only echo the response from the men's lawyers and from Amnesty International: the news is thoroughly welcome - but long, long overdue. That the men are to be released without appearing before one of the deeply suspect US military tribunals may be a result of what the Foreign Secretary described yesterday as "intensive and complex discussions" between officials of both countries. Equally, however, it may also reflect the lack of any compelling evidence against them.

For the fact is that the whole Guantanamo saga has been a disgrace from the start and something that has sullied the reputation of the United States the world over. The particular iniquity of Guantanamo was not only that the prisoners were held indefinitely and without charge but that - until the US Supreme Court ruled otherwise - they had no legal recourse. They were in a judicial and constitutional limbo: held by the United States, but not protected by US legal safeguards - which is exactly what the Bush administration had ingeniously decreed.

For Tony Blair, as a demonstrably committed ally of the United States, the continued detention of British citizens in Guantanamo bore humiliating testimony to his powerlessness to influence Mr Bush where the "war on terror" was concerned. It also constituted an impediment to normal diplomatic relations between our two countries. The release of the four Britons should bring this unfortunate episode in US-British relations to an end.

It may never be clear whether the releases are on judicial grounds, whether they are intended as a favour to Mr Blair in advance of the election, or whether they are part of a wider public relations exercise - detectable in the US response to the tsunami disaster - by Washington to transform its negative image around the world. There could well be elements of all three. With the war in Iraq having become such a liability, it would make sense for the US to eliminate unnecessary obstacles to good relations with traditional allies.

If this embarrassing chapter in British-US relations may be ending, however, other repercussions of Guantanamo will be harder to expunge. The US Supreme Court may have brought the Guantanamo camp into US jurisdiction, but the administration has not dismantled the military tribunals. According to some reports, the US intends to reduce the number of detainees to 200, from the current 500 or so, then make the prison permanent. So long as anyone is held in conditions that fail to conform either to international conventions or to US law, Guantanamo will stand as an indictment of the US administration that created it. That applies whether there are British citizens detained there or not.

Nor will their release from Guantanamo be the end of the story for those who were held there. The Britons released last year gave harrowing accounts of routine ill-treatment which at times verged on torture. The experiences of the four now to be released will hardly have been different. The memories of their years in US detention, not knowing when or whether they would be released, will live with the nine Britons probably for ever.

There are implications, too, for the British authorities. The men returning must be questioned, and any evidence of criminal activity on their part tested in court. There are security considerations relating to where they may have been seized and what they may have been doing which cannot be ignored. Claims that one or more of the men were trained by al-Qa'ida need to be investigated. Whatever then happens, however, must accord with the law. As British citizens, they will not face the prospect of another judicial no man's land - the British Guantanamo of Belmarsh prison. The shame is that, despite last month's ruling by the Law Lords, if they were merely British residents and not British citizens, such a fate could not be ruled out.

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