Senior ministers are resigned to the prospect that the two British prisoners who face US military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba cannot be repatriated to stand trial in UK courts because, as one US official put it, Britain has "no law to prosecute them."
The stalemate has become hugely embarrassing to British Prime Minister Tony Blair as he heads for Washington this week to enjoy the rare honor of addressing a joint session of US Congress.
The Britons are among six designated prisoners -- held incommunicado for 18 months since the Afghan campaign -- facing secret justice before a military tribunal. If they plead not guilty, they could risk the death penalty for alleged terrorist offences.
The fact that two of the six are British citizens has led to speculation in Whitehall that they may have been chosen in the hope that, faced with a strong prosecution case, they will accept plea-bargaining and tell what they know in return for leniency.
But British officials deny claims by MPs who have visited Capitol Hill that a formal US offer to send back Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi was rejected by David Blunkett, the home secretary, because he could not guarantee, as the Bush administration had demanded, that they would face trial in Britain for alleged intelligence offenses.
"That offer might have been discussed among US officials, but there were the usual fissures between the state department and the department of defense. It was never agreed among them," said one Whitehall official. The US defense department would control a military tribunal at Guantanamo.
One former minister with close military and political contacts in the US is adamant that he was told in Washington: "We would be happy to send these guys back, but you have no law to prosecute them. We are not going to just let them go."
British lawyers say that intelligence- or interrogation-based evidence would make it hard for the crown prosecution service even to try to mount a successful prosecution and that, in any case, defense lawyers would argue that lack of access to their clients for 18 months rendered a fair trial impossible.
The news that the British government was giving up hopes of repatriation came as the wife of one of the British men added to pressure on Blair by calling for her husband to be brought back to this country.
On the first birthday of the couple's son, Sally Begg, from Birmingham, yesterday asked the prime minister to intervene on Moazzam's behalf so that he might meet the baby he has never seen. Begg asked that her husband be repatriated and face justice in a British court.
Begg, 35, was arrested in Pakistan where he had been running an Islamic school, and was transferred to Bagram air base in Afghanistan before being moved to Guantanamo Bay.
Begg, who was in the family's Islamabad home when her husband was arrested, said: "I think he should be brought back home where I can see him, where the children can see him, where he can see his baby that he has never seen and who is one year old today."
Speaking to BBC Radio West Midlands she made a personal appeal to Blair: "I would say 'You are a father, you are a husband and you are there for your wife. I want my husband to be there for my children and for me and I need him just like your wife needs you.'"
Family and friends of Abbasi say they are extremely concerned for the mental health of the former computing student from south London.