Human Rights

Britain Gives Rude Welcome to Innocent Gitmo Prisoners

To admit that they pose no threat would show how complacent the Brits have been in supporting the U.S.'s black prison network.
The release from Guantanamo Bay of three UK residents after more than four years detention without charge or trial, marks a welcome change of government attitude from the shameful refusal of responsibility for them during the Blair years. Home secretaries and foreign office ministers came and went, but all stoutly maintained, including in successive court cases where the government side was argued by top British lawyers, that these men's fate was not Britain's problem.

However, the last-minute decision to subject two of the three to extradition warrants from Spain on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism, which meant they had to appear in court immediately to contest deportation, marks yet another low point in the handling of these cases and subjected the distraught families to what felt like torture, as they said today.

Edward Fitzgerald QC and Tim Otty QC, appearing for Jamel el-Banna and Omar Deghayes, had little trouble in politely batting off the government's extremely weak case for opposing bail for el Banna, the first case heard.

The Spanish allegations are so vague and old, it is astonishing that anyone allowed them to be taken seriously. Over several years, the Spanish embassy in Washington has shown no inclination to follow up the fishing line held out by Judge Baltasar Garzon in December 2003, with the names of el-Banna and Deghayes on it as suspected terrorists. Two other men Garzon wanted questioned in Spain were flown there from Guantanamo, but released with no evidence against them. This history makes today's court cases a shocking welcome back to Britain for these two men and their families. (Two UK residents remain in Guantanamo and the UK authorities say they are still pressing their cases. So they should be.)

The newly released men's appalling stories of being kidnapped in Gambia by the US, or of being sold in Pakistan to the US, of extraordinary rendition, of psychological and physical torture in US prisons in Afghanistan and Cuba, are well enough known, thanks to their lawyers' extraordinary tenacity and the testimonies of their former colleagues in prison.

The undistinguished role of the British security services alongside the US every step of the way is also well known. In these cases, as with the previous two sets of releases back to Britain from Guantanamo Bay, much is being made of the security risk the men may pose for the UK. Dame Pauline Neville Jones, for instance, has spoken repeatedly on television about her conviction that people should know just what a risk we run by having these men home.

As with the previous cases, this security scaremongering is window-dressing to cover the complicity of our security services in these men's wrongful arrests, renditon, and serious ill-treatment over five years. To admit the truth - that they pose no threat - would reveal to the British public quite how unacceptable it is that they have been held all these years by our closest ally, in Guantanamo Bay, beyond the reach of the law.

It is not surprising that no one in MI5 has made an apology to any of the men who came back earlier for the service's part in what happened to them. British officials do not go in for apologies. And as far as we know, no one has been fired for incompetence in the intelligence-gathering behind these cases.

But another issue is even more important than British incompetence and hypocrisy. In one strand of multicultural Britain, the detail of these cases are hugely well-known. They are a symbol of why many Muslims feel this society regards them as second-class citizens who do not have the same rights to justice as the white middle class.
Victoria Brittain is a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian. She is co-author with Moazzam Begg of his book Enemy Combatant.
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