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Homeland Security

Foreign and Commonwealth Office


24 February 2004


With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the British citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Agreement with the United States Government on the return of five of the nine UK detainees was reached on Thursday last, 19 February. Although the House was in recess, I judged that it was only fair to the families of all nine detainees that they should be informed immediately. We therefore made every effort to contact the families and their Parliamentary representatives, and I made a public announcement late on Thursday afternoon. I could not report to the House yesterday as I had to attend the General Affairs Council in Brussels.
Mr Speaker,

The attacks of 11 September 2001 were the most appalling terrorist atrocity the world has ever seen. They killed more than 3,000 people, including 67 British citizens. In response to those attacks, a coalition of countries came together to launch a military campaign against al Qa'ida and its Taleban supporters to remove them from their strongholds in Afghanistan.

In these operations thousands of individuals believed to be al Qa'ida or Taleban fighters, or their supporters, were detained by coalition forces. The vast majority of these individuals were released. But those who were deemed to pose a substantial risk of returning to the conflict - to date around 800 - were sent by the United States to its naval base in Guantanamo Bay to be detained and to be questioned about their knowledge of al Qa'ida activities. As a result, valuable information has been gained which has helped to protect the international community from further al Qa'ida and related terrorist attacks.

Mr Speaker,

The Government has been in frequent and regular contact with the United States authorities concerning the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay. From the outset, the Government has sought to ensure their welfare and has actively encouraged the US Government to resolve the position of the British detainees. British officials have visited Guantanamo Bay six times.

We have kept their families and Parliament informed of the detainees' circumstances and of developments.

Mr Speaker,

In July 2003, two of the British detainees were designated by the United States authorities as eligible to stand trial by United States Military Commissions established to prosecute the detainees.

The Government made it clear straightaway that we had concerns about the Military Commission process. Consequently my RHF the Prime Minister asked my noble and learned friend the Attorney General to discuss with the United States authorities how the detainees, if prosecuted, could be assured of fair trials which met international standards.

The Attorney General therefore held a number of discussions with the United States authorities about the future of the detainees. In parallel, the Prime Minister has talked to President Bush. I have discussed this matter on many occasions with US Secretary of State Colin Powell; and extensive discussions have been held between British and United States government lawyers and officials.

These discussions have involved many complex issues of law and security, which both governments have had to consider carefully. Although the discussions have made significant progress, the view of the Attorney General was that the Military Commissions as presently constituted would not provide the process which we would afford British nationals.

Our discussions with the United States authorities are continuing. In the meantime, as I announced last Thursday, we agreed that five of the British detainees will return to the United Kingdom.

They are:
Rhuhel Ahmed,
Tareq Dergoul,
Jamal al-Harith,
Asif Iqbal and
Shafiq Rasul.

These men will be flown home to the United Kingdom in the next few weeks. The House will understand that it would not be right to disclose the operational details at this stage. The police have, however, established links with the families so that they can be informed of developments.

he police have confirmed that once the detainees are back in the United Kingdom, where there are grounds under the provisions of the legislation, the five men may be arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activity. Any subsequent action will be a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment further on their particular cases.

But I would like to emphasise two points here:

First, the police have said that they are investigating all the detainees thoroughly and individually, in the normal way, including the circumstances which led to the men's detention. Every necessary step, including prosecution if appropriate, will be taken to protect national security.

Second, the detainees will be treated in the same way as anyone else suspected of committing a criminal offence, in accordance with UK law. The process has built-in safeguards and is subject to independent scrutiny to ensure that all individuals are treated fairly and properly. It includes access to lawyers.

Mr Speaker,

We shall continue our discussions with the United States authorities on the situation of the other four British detainees. They are:

Feroz Abbasi,
Moazzam Begg,
Richard Belmar and
Martin Mubanga.

There are a range of security and other issues which we and the Americans are considering in respect of these four men. As a result of our talks, US legal proceedings against Mr Abbasi and Mr Begg were suspended in July and the US said that the men would not be subject to the death penalty. This remains the case.

Our overall position remains that the detainees should either be tried in accordance with international standards, or they should be returned to the United Kingdom. We shall continue to work to resolve their position. I will of course keep the House informed.

Mr Speaker,

The Government remains determined to work with our allies around the world to defeat the scourge of global terrorism. Terrorists seek to deny the most basic of human rights - to life, to security, and the right to go about our daily business free from threat and harm. We will continue resolutely to defend these rights through a robust and determined approach to combating terrorism and its networks of support wherever it is to be found.

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