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Us could execute british citizens

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Britons could face death sentence as US prepares al-Qa'eda trials in Cuba
By Sean O'Neill and David Rennie in Washington
(Filed: 05/07/2003)

Two British al-Qa'eda suspects could face the death penalty at the American detention camp in Guantanamo Bay after President George W Bush ordered that they should stand trial before a secretive military tribunal.

The Foreign Office promised yesterday to hold "very vigorous discussions" with US authorities to ensure that Feroz Abbasi, 23, and Moazzam Begg, 35, received fair trials.

Lady Symonds, the Foreign Office minister, expressed "serious reservations" about the military commissions that will try Abbasi, Begg and four other Camp Delta detainees.

The Pentagon has insisted the hearings will be "full and fair" but refused to say what the Britons will be charged with or how the trials will be conducted.

They will be defended by lawyers who are required to be US citizens, must have security clearance and are part of a team headed by a US air force colonel. The cases will be decided not by a jury but by a military panel.

Officials in Washington indicated that the first inmates to be tried may be encouraged to plead guilty in return for a measure of leniency. The US authorities believe they have strong evidence against the two Britons and the four others to be tried.

The tribunals are expected to be held at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the men are among 680 people incarcerated as "enemy combatants" and where courtroom and execution facilities are being built.

The Britons' families were told late on Thursday night in telephone calls from Foreign Office officials that they had been "designated" by the President to stand trial as suspected members of al-Qa'eda.

Begg, who is married with four young children, left Birmingham in June 2001 and was detained in Pakistan in February last year.

Abbasi, from Croydon, south London, was indoctrinated in Islamic radicalism at Finsbury Park mosque. He was captured in Afghanistan by US forces in January 2002.

Lady Symonds said she had many concerns about how the pair would be dealt with by the US military.

"I have serious reservations both about the principle of military commissions and the way in which those commissions are going to operate," she said.

"It now behoves Government to vigorously pursue the issues about access to lawyers, standards of evidence to be adopted and any appeals procedure." But the US has paid little attention to previous representations from Britain.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has asked in vain for the detainees to be repatriated to face trial here and the Appeal Court said Abbasi's detention was "objectionable".

Louise Christian, solicitor for Zumrati Juma, Abbasi's mother, said she would press the Government to take a tougher stance with the US when she meets Lady Symonds on Monday.

"The United States has not consulted with the UK Government in any way," said Miss Christian. "The fact that we are America's closest ally in the war against terror has won us no influence.

"We would expect the British Government to make sure that British citizens are not put on trial in a patently unfair court. Britain should take a case against the US government in the International Court of Justice on behalf of its citizens."

Miss Christian said Mrs Juma was "extremely distressed".

Azmat Begg, 63, said he learned that his son was to be tried from a telephone message left by the Foreign Office. "I was very upset, very unhappy and very worried," he said.

"The judge will be a military man, the prosecutor will be military and the defence lawyer will be military. Everything is being done by the military, how can it be a fair trial?

"I am 100 per cent sure my son has nothing to do with al-Qa'eda. My son went from here with his wife and four very small children to Afghanistan to establish a school.

"We come from British Indian Army people, some of my family were prisoners of war in Germany."

Stephen Jakobi, of Fair Trials Abroad, who has been helping Mr Begg, said the trials were without precedent because they would be conducted under "a new kind of law invented by the US Department of Defense".

Mr Jakobi added: "British citizens are facing the death penalty at the hands of a power which has promised them an unfair trial. Everything has been rigged in advance."

Col Will Gunn, the chief defence counsel appointed to the military commissions, told BBC2's Newsnight his team faced major challenges but would provide "the very best possible defence" for the detainees.

"This country has long said we're about justice being done," he said. "That's what the principle of Americanism means to many people."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The British Government has a duty to be robust in its defence of civil rights of British citizens.

"So far today, there has been little indication of any intention to do so. These men should be sent back to Britain immediately."

One of the other detainees who will face a tribunal is David Hicks, 27, an Australian citizen who was captured while fighting for the Taliban in December 2001.

The other Britons being held at Guantanamo Bay are: Shafiq Rasul, 24, Asif Iqbal, 20, Ruhal Ahmed, 20 - all from Tipton, West Midlands; Jamal Udeen, 35, from Manchester and three Londoners: Tarek Dergoul, 24, Martin Mubanga, 29, and Richard Belmar, 23.

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