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5 Terror Suspects Return to Britain

March 10, 2004|Bruce Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Five British citizens once alleged to be among the world's most dangerous men were released Tuesday from detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, returning in a military transport plane to be delivered into police custody upon landing on British soil.

Four of the men were arrested under British anti-terrorism laws at an air force base 20 miles west of London. A fifth, Jamal Harith, was briefly detained and released. His lawyer, Robert Lizar, told reporters that Harith wanted to know why he had been held and "treated in a cruel, inhumane and degrading manner."

With David Blunkett, Britain's senior law enforcement official, having declared that the men pose no security threat to the nation, many observers say the others also may be released soon.

The returning men who were arrested are Shafiq Rasul, 24; Asif Iqbal, 20; and Rhuhel Ahmed, 21 -- all from the English Midlands town of Tipton and dubbed by British tabloids "the Tipton Taliban" -- as well as Tarek Dergoul, 24, of London. All are Muslims who ended up on or near the battlefields of Afghanistan, where they were captured by U.S. troops in 2001 and 2002.

Their repatriation has rekindled anger here over Washington's decision to treat those it captured during the Afghan war as "illegal combatants" rather than giving them the legal rights of prisoners of war. Lord Justice Johan Steyn, a senior British judge, recently called the Guantanamo detentions "a monstrous failure of justice," and there is a sense in Britain that the Bush administration has abandoned some of the principles it claims to be fighting for in its campaign against terrorism.

British police said Tuesday's returning suspects would have immediate access to defense lawyers and would be given medical exams to ensure that they were fit to be questioned. But the legal guarantees are arriving late for Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been embarrassed by his inability -- or unwillingness, some say -- to end the detention of British citizens by the nation's closest ally.

Four other Britons remain incarcerated in Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay. The British government continued to insist Tuesday that it was committed to securing guarantees of a fair trial for those prisoners. Blair's official spokesman said the right to a lawyer and the right to appeal were essential if any Britons were to be tried in the U.S.

But negotiations between the allies have been awkward. Washington has sought assurances that any of those released will be "managed" with "appropriate and specific steps," as Pierre-Richard Prosper, Washington's ambassador-at-large for war crimes, put it. The Blair government responded that any evidence gathered under Guantanamo's vague legal standing probably would be ruled inadmissible in British courts, and that it had no power to influence how police investigations would be conducted.

Families of those released Tuesday, eager to see the men for the first time in more than two years, urged Blair to release them without further delay.

But a homecoming may not be welcomed by all in Tipton, an economically depressed town in the industrial heartland. With the "Tipton Taliban" raising hackles, the far-right British National Party's anti-Muslim message has gained some sympathy and a couple of seats on the local council by alleging the presence of "terrorists" among residents.

That resentment was apparent in a pub, the Fountain Free House, one recent afternoon. "If they went over there to fight us, they have no business over here," said Martin Murray, 50, a tool setter. "My son's in the army fighting their lot."

But the mood is different at Azmat Begg's house. His son, Moazzam, is among the four Britons left in Guantanamo.

"He should be brought back in this country where he was born and brought up," Begg said. "And then try and punish him according to the laws of this country if he has done something wrong."

Times staff writer John Daniszewski contributed to this report while recently on assignment in Tipton.

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