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Outrage over plight of Guantanamo detainees

Martin Bright, Kamal Ahmed and Peter Beaumont

Sunday July 6, 2003

The Observer

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,992467,00.html

The two British terrorist suspects facing a secret US military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay will be given a choice: plead guilty and accept a 20-year prison sentence, or be executed if found guilty.

American legal sources close to the process said that the prisoners' dilemma was intended to encourage maximum 'co-operation'.

The news comes as Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, prepares to urge US Secretary of State Colin Powell to repatriate the two Britons. He will say that they should face a fair trial here under English law. Backed by Home Secretary David Blunkett, Straw will make it clear that the Government opposes the death penalty and wants to see both men tried 'under normal judicial process'.

Lawyers acting for Moazzam Begg, 35, from Sparkbrook, Birmingham, and Feroz Abassi, 23, from Croydon, said that any confessions gathered while the men were kept without charge or access to lawyers in Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and Camp Delta in Cuba would have no status in international law and would be inadmissible in British courts.

Gareth Peirce, who acts for Moazzam Begg, said: 'Anything that any human being says or admits under threat of brutality is regarded internationally and nationally as worthless. It makes the process an abuse. Moazzam Begg had a year in Bagram airbase and then six months in Guantanamo Bay. If this treatment happened for an hour in a British police station, no evidence gathered would be admissible,' she said.

Stephen Jakobi of Fair Trials Abroad, which is leading the campaign for the two men, said: 'Our concern is that there will be no meaningful way of testing the evidence against these people. The US Defence Department has set itself up as prosecution, judge and defence counsel and has created the rules of trial. This is patently a kangaroo court.'

Begg's family believe he was kidnapped in Pakistan by US authorities. He was taken to Bagram on suspicion of passing funds to al-Qaeda and later transferred to Camp Delta. He has not seen a lawyer since he was seized.

In a clear signal of the high lev els of concern within the Government, the acting British ambassador in Washington, Tony Brenton, will raise 'official concern' with the White House.

According to US legal and constitutional experts, the Final Rule, the regulations that will govern the military commissions, has rendered a fair trial almost impossible.

Among those representing the two British men in the United States is Michael Ratner, of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who believes the tribunals are weighted in favour of securing guilt verdicts.

'The trial system in Guantanamo Bay allows a whole series of serious breaches of defendant rights that would mean that they could never come to trial in the US.

'First, it allows the wiretapping of attorney-client meetings, although those wiretaps cannot actually be used in evidence. Then there is the fact that the Pentagon "Appointing Authority" - probably US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - has the ability to remove a judge at any time without giving any reason.'

Among other concerns about the 50-page Final Rule, which was published by the Department of Defence last week for governing the trials, are:

· that rules of evidence are so broad that it is left at the discretion of the trial's presiding officer whether to allow any evidence he believes would be convincing to a 'reasonable person' and that that would appear to allow the admission of hearsay evidence; · that evidence can be admitted by telephone and by pseudonym; · that it is insisted that only security-screened civil attorneys be allowed to appear before the court and they can also be removed at any time.

The concerns follow allegations by Amnesty and other human rights groups that US detainees in Guantanamo Bay have suffered severe abuse, including beatings that may have led to the death of two men held at the US detention facility at Bagram.

In March, Amnesty wrote to President Bush to complain about the treatment of detainees after US military officials reportedly confirmed that post-mortem reports in the cases of the two men who died at Bagram gave cause of death as 'homicide' and 'blunt force injuries'.

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