Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Guantanamo trials worry Britain


Britain's Foreign Office Friday expressed serious concern about Washington's decision to put two Britons held as suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay before a secretive military tribunal which has the power to order executions.

US President George W. Bush's decision to "designate" six inmates of the maximum security Camp Delta -- including the Britons, an Australian, and three others -- to face the military hearings sparked worldwide condemnation, and lawyers accused the US of devising a process that was loaded towards ensuring guilty verdicts.

Feroz Abbasi, 23, from south London, and Moazzam Begg, 35, from Birmingham, England, have been held for 18 months without charge or access to a lawyer.

Asked about the possibility of the death penalty, the father of Moazzam, Azmat Begg, said, "It's a disaster for the family."

Britain has "strong reservations" about the US plans for the military commission, where US military officers -- the judge and jury -- will sit in judgment on charges brought by their government. The defense and prosecution lawyers will also be US military officers.

The UK Foreign Office minister, Lady Symons, said, "We would want to ensure that there is a separation between government on one hand and the judiciary on the other. It is now up to us to have a very vigorous discussion with the US about securing a fair trial for the individuals involved."

A British source said that although no charges had been yet indicated, they were expected to be insufficiently serious to qualify for the death penalty. "It appears very unlikely that any of the two British detainees would face the death penalty," an official said.

The proceedings will be held mainly in secret, although the Pentagon plans to hold some sections in public to assuage human rights concerns.

Britain is in an embarrassing diplomatic position. It does not seek a row with the US, its closest ally, but also knows the men's families will campaign vigorously against the decision to subject the Britons to military tribunals.

There are concerns about the mental health of both British men. In his last meeting with British officials in April, Abbasi said nothing for an hour, and Begg in a recent letter to his wife wrote that he would take a decision that would affect the entire family.

"He said anything just in the hope of getting out of there," said his father.

There are nine Britons among the 680 men from 42 countries held at Camp Delta. They were seized after the US attack on Afghanistan and branded "the hardest of the hard" by the US.

They are held in cells eight feet by six feet eight inches, locked up for no less than 23 and a half hours a day, and bound hand and foot when out of their cell.

The regime and conditions, including lights being left on outside the inmates' cells at night, have been condemned by international human rights groups and there have been 28 suicide attempts.

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