An issue that won't fade

Four Britons being released from detention at Guantanamo are expected to allege torture by their U.S. captors.

By Vikram Dodd

Published January 12, 2005 2:41PM (EST)

The political pain the Blair government has been caused by the detention of four Britons at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, will not end when the men get home. They are expected to allege that they were tortured and ill-treated by their U.S. captors. They are also expected to say that not only did the British government do too little to help them, but it was complicit in their treatment. British security service officers questioned the Britons while they were held in conditions condemned as harsh and after they had allegedly suffered treatment that at times amounted to torture.

Detainee Moazzam Begg alleges he was suspended by handcuffs from a bar and threatened with death. Martin Mubanga says that he was shackled for so long that he wet himself. All the detainees were interrogated repeatedly, and they had barely an hour of exercise a week.

The allegations that have already emerged from these four Britons echo those made by some of the five Britons who were released in March 2003. The so-called Tipton Three produced a dossier alleging that techniques employed by the United States to break them included repeated beatings, shackling them to the floor for long periods, the use of loud music, questioning them at gunpoint and exposure to extremes of hot and cold.

Washington and London hope the issue of Guantánamo Bay will fade away once the men have been released. The issue has poisoned relations between the two close allies, and embarrassed British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain's attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, spearheaded the effort to negotiate a deal for the men's release. The United States had wanted them to face military commissions whose rules, critics said, were rigged in favor of the prosecution. After pressure from supporters of the detainees, senior ministers condemned the planned trials and last March secured the release of five of the Britons held there. But the United States held on to four. The failure to secure their release led to the value of Blair's special relationship with George W. Bush being questioned, with the continued incarceration serving as a symbol of Blair's impotence.

Tuesday's announcement of the detainees' imminent release raised questions about why the Bush administration had finally agreed. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had claimed that those held in Guantánamo were the "hardest of the hard"; now the Britons are to be sent back to the U.K. and almost certain freedom.

Eugene Fidell, president of the U.S. National Institute of Military Justice, is in no doubt about the reason: "They would have been charged if the government had any evidence on them. The purpose of these detentions is to squeeze people for information, not to prosecute them."

In the United States, the free run the Bush administration had enjoyed in its treatment of up to 680 Muslim men at Guantánamo came to an end last summer. In June the Supreme Court struck down the president's claim that Guantánamo was not under the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. The ruling meant that detainees could sue the government to force it to justify their detention, and lawsuits were launched. U.S. government lawyers have so far failed to have the cases struck down. As Fidell said: "The credibility of Guantánamo is extremely low. The government has lost every legal battle that has occurred concerning the detentions."

In the United States FBI documents have emerged showing the agency's concern about how detainees were being treated. Former Guantánamo interrogators told the New York Times that ill treatment was used or threatened at the prison, and the Pentagon was forced to announce an inquiry into the allegations of abuses.

Brent Mickum, the U.S. lawyer for Mubanga, said concern had been growing: "The Bush administration has realized it is hurting them now. These hideous allegations are established; it is not an anti-terrorism facility, it is a torture facility. The government can't deny the torture anymore because it is their own documents, from the FBI, saying this. Rather than letting all these people parade through the courts saying they were tortured or ill-treated, they let them go."

In Britain, the situation at Guantánamo was condemned by Tory M.P.'s and people on the left; in the United States, some Republicans attacked the system, as did military officers assigned to defend the detainees picked to face trial before military commissions. It was also another reason for Muslim Labor voters to desert Labor.

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said whenever he and his members met with senior ministers the issue of Guantánamo had been raised: "We made clear that this was a crucial issue for British Muslims, who feel since 9/11 laws are being applied to them in a discriminatory manner. Guantánamo symbolized how Muslims feel they are being treated." Tuesday the government felt some relief that finally the last British citizens were on their way home.

Vikram Dodd

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