Brits Heading Home From Gitmo

Guard tower at Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba, Prisoner, Hand Cuffs, Generic
CBS/AP
The return of five British prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay creates a dilemma for a government seeking to balance citizens' legal rights with a desire to be tough on terrorism.

The men, some held for more than two years, are expected to fly back to Britain Tuesday, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced Monday during a speech in Massachusetts.

Government and police released no details about the men's arrival. British media reported they would be flown by military jet to an air force base in west London. They would then face questioning by anti-terrorist police. Greg Powell, a lawyer representing Ahmed, said his client would be taken to the high-security Paddington Green police station in London for interrogation.

"I think it's high time they came back. I've been very worried about the way in which people have been detained in Guantanamo Bay," said Lord Carlisle, the government's independent reviewer of terrorism laws.

The government announced last month that five of the nine Britons held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba would be released. They have been identified as Rhuhel Ahmed, 23; Tarek Dergoul, 24; Jamal al-Harith, 35; Asif Iqbal, 20; and Shafiq Rasul, 25.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said it will be up to prosecutors whether the five face trial in Britain. Legal experts doubt there will be enough evidence for any prosecutions.

The future of the four others — Moazzam Begg, 36; Feroz Abbasi, 23; Richard Belmar, 23; and Martin Mubanga, 29 — remains uncertain. Members of their families were in Washington, D.C., on Monday calling for their release.

Blunkett, speaking during a question-and-answer session at the Harvard University Law School, said, "We are seeing the release of five of the nine U.K. citizens who are held in Guantanamo Bay over the next 24 hours.

"When they return they will, of course, go through the normal process of being interviewed by the (police) counterterrorism branch in London. And the material that has been provided will be evaluated," Blunkett said in remarks aired by the British Broadcasting Corp.

Legal experts believe it unlikely the five released prisoners will face trial at home because of a lack of evidence against them.

Lawyers said that any information gleaned from the men during interrogation at the base would be inadmissible, as they had been denied access to lawyers. The lawyers said it was questionable whether British courts had jurisdiction over alleged criminal acts in Afghanistan, unless acts of terrorism or treason could be proven.

Blunkett said Monday that the four remaining Britons had been arrested "in the combat zone" in Afghanistan and that evidence against them "is best used in the U.S."

Britain is critical of U.S. plans to try Guantanamo detainees in front of military tribunals. Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said Tuesday that the four Britons should only be tried in the United States if they had access to legal representation and rights of appeal.

"Our understanding of the position at the moment is that that does not exist," he said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity. "Discussions continue with the American authorities as to how to resolve this issue."

Families and lawyers of the five men have insisted throughout their two-year-long detention that they are innocent and were mistakenly caught up in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Iqbal, a parcel depot worker from Tipton in central England, had, according to reports, gone to Pakistan to meet a prospective bride before flying to Afghanistan to consider the marriage. He was joined by two school friends — Ahmed and Rasul. All three were reportedly detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Al-Harith, a Web site designer from Manchester in northern England, had, according to reports, gone backpacking in Pakistan in September 2001, and was arrested on the Afghan border by Taliban soldiers who feared he was a spy. He was reportedly sent to Guantanamo after U.S. forces found him in a Kandahar jail.

Dergoul reportedly flew to Pakistan to learn Arabic after giving up his job caring for the elderly. He was allegedly captured at the Tora Bora mountain complex.

Reaction in Tipton was mixed.

"They've been held without charge. That's wrong," said one man, but another disagreed.

"I think they should be sent back to Afghanistan, where they belong," he said.

According to lawyers and human rights groups, the five are most likely to be investigated under the Terrorism Act 2000. The wide-ranging legislation allows for prosecution for membership of a banned organization, fund-raising, recruiting of others or terrorist acts committed in Britain or overseas.