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Britain Pressures U.S. to Release 4 Prisoners

June 26, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — In a challenge to the Bush administration's policies at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Britain's top legal officer said Friday that an American plan to try British citizens in a military tribunal was unfair and a violation of international standards.

The public protest by Lord Peter Goldsmith, Britain's attorney general, comes in spite of a U.S. promise that British citizens would not be subject to the death penalty, as would prisoners of other nationalities, and despite the release in March of five of the nine British citizens held at the prison.

It also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality and constitutionality of the prison, where about 600 inmates have been held, some for nearly three years, without access to lawyers or to their families, and with no fixed terms of incarceration.

Britain is the Bush administration's closest ally in its campaign against terrorism. It has provided more than 10,000 troops to the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq.

But after months of quiet diplomacy failed to move the Bush administration to accept requests from Foreign Minister Jack Straw to repatriate the remaining British detainees at Guantanamo so that they can be investigated and tried here, officials apparently have decided to increase the pressure by airing their dissent openly.

Goldsmith has been leading British efforts to negotiate with U.S. authorities the hand-over of the detainees, who were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan or were suspected of being linked to Al Qaeda.

The remarks by Goldsmith, prepared for delivery Friday night at the International Criminal Law Assn. in Paris, were released to the BBC and British Press Assn. news service.

Goldsmith said that Britain was prepared to accept "some limitation of fundamental rights" to combat terrorism, but that "there are certain principles on which there can be no compromise."

"Fair trial is one of those -- which is the reason that we in the U.K. have been unable to accept that the U.S. military tribunals proposed for those detained in Guantanamo Bay offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards," he said.

Human rights groups have harshly criticized the military commissions, ordered by the Bush administration in November 2001.

They say that the judges, as military officers, would not be independent; that under current plans, the defendants would not be allowed to question witnesses or see all the evidence against them; and that evidence obtained through coercive means could be used.

In addition, convictions would not be subject to review by an independent judiciary and only President Bush, as commander in chief, would be able to grant pardons. In public statements, Bush has labeled the Guantanamo prisoners as a group as "killers."

The detainees have not been granted prisoner-of-war status, which would guarantee protections under the Geneva Convention. Instead, they are regarded as "enemy combatants."

The U.S. government has denied accusations by former prisoners that the Guantanamo detainees are subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse. It says they are being treated humanely.

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