Blair wants britons back
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Fri 11 Jul 2003
Blair tells Bush: Send the British al-Qaeda suspects back for trial
JASON BEATTIE CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT
TONY Blair is to press for the repatriation of the two British al-Qaeda suspects held at Guantanamo Bay when he meets George Bush next week, in an effort to defuse the most serious transatlantic rift since the end of the Iraq war.
The Prime Minister will raise the issue personally with the United States president in Washington, Downing Street said yesterday.
The two British suspects at the camp are due to be tried by a military commission, directly appointed by Mr Bush and without access to basic standards of justice.
With more than 160 MPs, mostly Labour, protesting at the summary justice, Mr Blair was caught between mollifying back-benchers or offending his closest international ally.
The Prime Minister has so far adopted a diplomatic silence on the matter, but Downing Street indicated yesterday that he will now raise the fate of the British detainees at next week’s meeting. The government has previously refused to intervene on behalf of the "British Taleban" - Feroz Abbasi, of Croydon, and Moazzam Begg, from Birmingham, who have been held at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than a year.
The two Britons are among six al-Qaeda suspects whom Mr Bush has designated for trial by a US military court. If found guilty, they could face the death penalty.
With the issue threatening to provoke further divisions within the Labour Party, Downing Street made clear the British government had "strong reservations" about the use of a military commission which would see the trial conducted behind closed doors with the suspects defended by a lawyer hand-picked by the US military.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has spoken twice in the last week to his counterpart, Colin Powell, to make representations about the means of justice, which the British believe will not try the suspects humanely, and the prospect of them facing the death penalty if found guilty.
"We have made clear to the United States that the detainees should be treated humanely," said the Prime Minister’s official spokesman. "We have also got strong reservations about military commissions and those reservations have been raised and will continue to be raised with the US at various levels."
The spokesman denied that David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, had rejected an offer by the US to repatriate the two men if the British could guarantee they would stand trial.
It is the latest in a number of issues to unsettle the "special relationship" between London and Washington and could take the gloss off a gala reception for the Prime Minister when he becomes one of the few overseas leaders to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his support for the US over Iraq.
A Downing Street official said negotiations on Guantanamo were being conducted in a mature manner, but admitted: "The US have their views and we have ours. We have repeatedly said this is a highly unusual and difficult situation and obviously we would want to bring an end to it as swiftly as possible."
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs, said Mr Blair must make a personal plea.
"This is not a minor argument about procedure," he said. "This is an issue of fundamental principle. The United States has effectively rendered these British citizens stateless. They are in legal no-man’s land. They enjoy no protection under any national legal system and are subject to the arbitrary judgment of the US administration."
In addition to differences over Guantanamo, the close relationship forged by Mr Blair and Mr Bush is in danger of unravelling in the face of growing sceptism over whether Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction will be found. There is increasing frustration in Britain that the White House and the Pentagon have undermined Downing Street’s defence of its intelligence-gathering operation by refusing to stand by the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons programme.
In another setback for Mr Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, raised doubts about whether No 10 had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam by conceding the US had "no dramatic evidence" about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war.
Downing Street yesterday shifted its position by downgrading claims that chemical or biological missiles will be found, saying the Iraq Survey Group may only turn up evidence of "products" linked to the weapons.
There was evidence in the US yesterday of the mounting cost of war, as Mr Rumsfeld said the US was paying $3.9 billion a month to keep its forces in Iraq, almost double the $2 billion estimate.
General Tommy Franks, the wartime commander in Iraq, who stepped down on Monday, conceded US troops could be in the country for up to four years.