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June 24, 2004

Britain's Guantanamo


by Jim Lobe

LONDON – The man known only as "G" was lucky that the deterioration of his mental health became obvious.

"G," one of the 12 men held indefinitely without trial in Britain's top security prisons, was let out on bail in April on the basis that his indefinite detention had caused deterioration of his mental health.

He had begun to suffer from psychotic attacks, and these got much worse after his appeal to seek release was turned down in November last year.

He had been detained for about two years before he was released. Eight of the men have been in detention longer, since December 2001 when the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 passed.

Under the act foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorist activity can be detained indefinitely. That means they can be jailed all their life without ever being brought to trial.

One of the detainees, "M," was released in March by the special immigration appeals commission. The identities of all the men have been kept secret. They are all known by a single letter, which is not necessarily one of the initials.

"M" said after his release that many of the detainees were suffering serious mental and physical health problems.

Of those still under detention, one has been moved to a psychiatric hospital at Broadmoor. The remaining 11 are held in top security prisons.

There are reports that yet another person is being held under unspecified powers.

There is no indication when any of the men will be released. "There is no movement towards any kind of trial," Ben Ward from Human Rights Watch told IPS. "If they could have been brought to trial, this would have been done by now."

The testimony of "M" after his release stunned human rights activists. He said that during 16 months of detention he was never questioned by anyone from any agency of the British government.

"That lack of interrogation calls into question the assertion of the British government that it is diligently seeking to bring some form of prosecution against the detained men," Ward said.

Following sustained pressure from human rights activists, the British government announced the beginning of a six-month consultation process over the fate of the men in February this year. That consultation period to determine what the government called the balance between security and liberty is drawing to a close.

A parliamentary committee headed by Lord Newton had recommended in December last year that the government powers of indefinite detention should be urgently repealed. The committee was set up by Home Secretary David Blunkett.

The Newton committee said the powers to impose indefinite detention do not even fully address the threat from terrorism because they do not apply to British nationals.

The committee said these powers were damaging community and race relations because Muslims saw these powers as unjust, and as targeting Muslims. "From the human rights point of view use of indefinite detention does not work," said Ward. "But it does not work even from the security point of view."

Earlier, a human rights committee of the British parliament had similarly recommended immediate repeal of the powers of indefinite detention under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act.

In order to introduce those powers the British government had to declare a state of emergency under which it could suspend key human rights protections. Britain was the only country in Europe to suspend fundamental human rights obligations following September 11.

A briefing paper released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) Wednesday says the British government powers have been criticized as "discriminatory and unwarranted" by parliamentary groups and also by expert bodies in the United Nations.

The British government has signaled that it is considering deporting detainees to third countries by relying on "framework agreements," the HRW paper says. In these agreements, more commonly known as "diplomatic assurances," the government of the receiving country assures the government carrying out the deportation that the detainees will not face torture or ill treatment if returned.

"Diplomatic assurances have proved to be an ineffective safeguard in the past," Rachel Denber, acting executive director of the Europe and Central division of HRW said in a statement. "They do not shield Britain from its obligation not to expose people to such torture."

A special nine-judge panel of the House of Lords, the upper house of British parliament, is scheduled to hear an appeal on the lawfulness of indefinite detention in October.


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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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