Return of Guantanamo prisoners

SACC welcomes the announcement by Foreign Secretary David Milband yesterday confirming that three British men held at Guantanamo Bay will come home shortly. The three men are Jamil El Banna, Omar Deghayes and Abdennour Sameur. We share the relief and joy the men and their families must be feeling at this news. It has been a long time coming.

But we are very disappointed that there is no good news for the other three men from Britain who are still being held at Guantanamo Bay. Frankly, we don't think the British government is trying hard enough. And we are disgusted that it hasn't disowned suggestions that "control orders" could be slapped on the three men, already traumatised by their long ordeal.

Ahmed Belbacha is an Algerian national. He was cleared for release by the Pentagon in February 2007 but cannot return to Algeria as he fled the country after threats were made to his life by Islamists and is likely to face further persecution by the government if he is returned having been tarnished by unfounded claims of being an "enemy combatant". Ahmed's claim for asylum in the UK was being appealed in 2001 when he was kidnapped and turned over to the US military in Pakistan. Yet when the UK government announced in August that it would be trying to negotiate the return of 5 British residents from Guantanamo, he was not amongst the men it named. The UK government's refusal to act on his behalf is mean-spirited and pedantic. He has no one else to turn to. Ahmed Belbacha should be allowed to return to the UK, where he had lived, in Bournemouth, for over two and a half years.

Shaker Aamer – one of the 5 men that the UK government said in August that it would help – is scheduled to be sent to Saudi Arabia, according to recent press reports. But David Miliband said yesterday only that the US has "so far declined the request for the release and return of Mr Aamer and we are no longer in active discussions regarding his transfer to the UK." Shaker Aamer has family – including 5 children – in South London. He suffered particularly vicious torture while in US custody in Afghanistan and he also suffered greatly at Guantanamo Bay. He would probably be subjected to torture and detention if returned to Saudi Arabia. But there isn't a shred of evidence to connect him with any crime.

Binyam Mohammed is another of the 5 men that the UK government said in August that it would help. David Milliband said yesterday that "we are still discussing with the US the case of Mr Mohammed although again the US government is not inclined to agree to his release and return." Binyam Mohammed suffered some of the worst toture yet documented in connection with rendition by the US. MI5 appears to have been complicit in that torture. According Clive Stafford-Smith's legal charity Reprieve, he only evidence against him was extracted by razor blades slicing his genitalia.

David Miliband says "we will continue to discuss with the US government how best we can work with them to see the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility." He should bear in mind that the US desperately needs British support for its failing wars in the Middle East. We think that the British government could get any deal over the British residents at Guantanamo Bay that it seriously wants. If Ahmed Belbacha, Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohammed aren't coming home, it's because Gordon Brown doesn't want them home badly enough.

Just as disturbing as the missing men, are press reports that the three men scheduled to return to Britain will be placed under MI5 surveillance and – worse still - that the British government hasn't ruled out placing them under "control orders".

The men have suffered physical abuse combined with lengthy detention in conditions designed to do them psychological harm. Control orders - a system of restictions that the Home Secraetary can impose without having to prove any wrong-doing - have a track record of undermining the mental health of people they are applied to. Control orders use curfews, restrictions on visitors and partial house arrest to turn British homes into mini-Guantanamos. It should be inconceivable that the Home Secretary would ever think of applying measures like that to torture victims from Guantanamo Bay.

Disgracefully, David Miliband refused in yersterday's statement to make any commitment to allow the three returning prisoners to stay in this country. He also said "the same security considerations will apply to them as would apply to any other foreign national in this country."

Family, friends and supporters of the men will certainly be aware that in recent years a number of people with permission to stay in the UK have been deported on supposed "security" grounds. It would be understandable if they were to take this as a threat, and remember it every time they are inclined to speak out against surveillance, or control orders, or the torment of prisoners still held at Guantanamo Bay. That would be our country's loss.

Polite silence has never yet prised justice from our government. But courage and the will to speak the truth can work wonders. All of us – especially those not as easily threatened as the families of Guantanamo prisoners – have a duty to try it. Please remember that on January 11th 2008 – the 6th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. We'll be holding a public meeting in Edinburgh – what about you?

Notes

  • A public meeting on civil liberties will be held in Edinburgh at 7.30pm, Friday January 11, at the Augustine Church, Geaorge IV Bridge. Speakers will include human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar.
  • David Miliband's statement (13 December 2007)
  • statement from Reprieve (13 December 2007)
  • Control orders can be imposed by the Home Secretary on anyone he or she suspect of a connection with terrorism. This controversial system was created by the Prevention of Terrorism 2005, and in many people's eyes was an attempt to evade a ruling by the Law Lords prohibiting detention without charge.