Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Tuesday, 7 August 2007 13:00 UK

Prisoner request another change from Blair era

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

David Miliband and Condoleezza Rice
Miliband is making request to Rice

The request by the British government for the release of five UK residents from Guantanamo Bay is a switch in policy and another sign that the new government of Gordon Brown is quietly distancing itself from that of Tony Blair.

It perhaps signals a greater readiness to be more flexible in the conduct of what President Bush called the "war on terror" after the attacks of 9/11.

And the United States itself seems keen to resolve as many cases at Guantanamo as it can.

The Blair government did call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay and acted on behalf of British citizens held in the camp, and they have been freed, but it always rejected demands that it support these five.

The government argued right up to the Appeal Court that it was under no obligation to do so because they were not UK nationals and that anyway its efforts would be "futile", as the Americans would not negotiate with third-country governments.

The court agreed and said it could not interfere in foreign policy. The court noted that arguments by the men's lawyers that they had been tortured were "powerful" ones, though only in the "context of political debate" and had no legal effect.

The government's approach has now changed. It is hardly coincident that the decision has followed a change of prime minister and foreign secretary.


A Foreign Office statement sought to justify the change by saying that the American were now more ready to negotiate with third-country governments.

"The Government welcomes recent steps taken by the US Government to reduce the numbers of those detained at Guantanamo Bay and to move towards the closure of the detention facility. These steps include an increasing emphasis on engagement with third countries over the transfer and resettlement of those detained," it stated.

It is hardly coincident that the decision has followed a change of prime minister and foreign secretary

The immediate trigger for the decision was a deadline of 9 August in the case of one of the prisoners, Jamil el-Banna, who had been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay and who might have been sent to Jordan if the UK government had accepted him.

By making the announcement so publicly in advance of any releases, the Foreign Office is apparently confident that its request will be met. Diplomatic assurances have probably already been given, perhaps during the visit by Mr Brown to the US last week.

One of the cases is that of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and accused by the US of taking part in a so-called "dirty bomb" plot after being at a camp visited by Osama bin Laden. He has denied the charges.

A lawsuit has been taken out on his behalf against a company alleged to have helped the CIA in an "extraordinary rendition" in which Binyam Mohamed was transferred to Morocco before being taken to Guantanamo Bay.

There are in fact six UK residents at Guantanamo but one, Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian, has been left off the Foreign Office request list for unstated reasons. The US has said it plans to send him to Algeria.

Camp in limbo

Guantanamo Bay itself remains in a legal limbo.

The original military tribunals were rejected as illegal because they had been ordered by the US President alone and not by Congress.

Congress passed the Military Commissions Act last year and new tribunals were started, only for the charges to be thrown out by the tribunal itself.

This was on the grounds that the Act said that an accused must be classified as an "illegal enemy combatant" yet the procedure had classified them only as "enemy combatants."

The future of the tribunals remains to be decided.

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