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With 4 Brits Released from Guantanamo, Activists Call for More

by Jessica Azulay

British authorities took little over a day to determine four UK citizens released after more than three years of captivity at the US “enemy combatant” prison pose no immediate threat.

Jan. 27, 2005 – British authorities released four former Guantánamo Bay detainees without charges yesterday, just over a day after securing their release from United States custody and flying them to London. As the four British citizens reunited with their families, human rights groups critical of the US "war on terror"-related detention policy renewed calls for due process for the some 550 remaining prisoners still held at the US-run camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Pentagon had held the former prisoners, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga, Richard Belmar and Moazzam Begg, in its detention center for nearly three years with limited access to the outside world, including family and legal counsel. Hundreds more, including at least five British residents, remain locked up at the Guantánamo facility, caught in a legal limbo of the Bush administration’s making.

In a statement responding to the release, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has been at the forefront of the legal struggle to gain access to American civil courts and lawyers for the Guantánamo detainees, said: "The men were held without charge. Their friends and family endured news of their torture and deteriorating health. They were branded international terrorists and ‘bad men.’ Yet, after three years of legal battles and public outcry, they have been released without charge, confirming once again the morally and legally bankrupt detention policy of [the Bush] Administration."

CCR has long held that the US detention policy violates fundamental democratic principles as well as international law by obstructing the ability of the detainees who are not involved in criminal acts to prove their innocence.

"These latest releases reveal another troubling fact: that clearly a number of those arrested, detained, tortured and interrogated for as long as three years had nothing at all to do with terrorism or the war in Afghanistan," said the Center in its statement. "The bounties paid by the Government for suspects guaranteed arrests but not corroboration of any person's role in any activity. Without a hearing, the detainees have had no chance to assert their rights or seek justice."

Though the US Supreme Court ruled last June that the prisoners should have access to US civilian courts to challenge their detentions, and a US District Court ruled that at least part of the administration’s system of military tribunals violates international and US law, the Bush administration has continued a policy of holding captives without transparent hearings that meet internationally recognized legal standards.

The administration has insisted that it is holding the captives in humane conditions and out of necessity for national security. Pentagon spokespeople have claimed that some of the detainees held at the prison are so dangerous it will be necessary to build a new prison in Guantánamo to hold them indefinitely, even in cases where there is not enough evidence to convict them of any crimes whatsoever.

"The men who were released today have families and governments who had the means to pursue diplomatic and legal avenues to secure their release and are from countries that are political allies of the United States," said Barbara Olshansky, deputy director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in a press statement. "An estimated 550 more remain at the Guantánamo prison camp with no way to retain counsel and no meaningful access to the courts."

The BBC reports that British anti-terrorist officers questioned Begg, Mubanga, Abbasi and Belmar upon their arrival to the UK and then released them. The US had held the men under suspicion that they were connected to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, and Abbasi had been among the few detainees singled out by the Bush administration for criminal trial by military tribunal, though the hearing was never held. British authorities reportedly released the four without charges.

As news that the four would be returned to the UK circulated, human rights groups expressed concern that the British government would neglect to pressure for the release of at least five British residents still being held at Guantánamo. Some ministers have told the press that there is little the government can do because the remaining men were not detained with UK passports. But some insist that the UK has both the obligation and the authority to intervene.

"After the high-profile release of British nationals there is a danger that the UK residents will become 'forgotten prisoners'," a spokesperson for the international human rights group Amnesty International told the Independent. "Without the UK to stand up for them, there is a real danger that these men will be almost totally forgotten -- left to languish in legal limbo indefinitely."

The release of the British detainees comes at a time when the Bush administration is under increasing criticism over the treatment of detainees in US-run prisons in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. While torturous conditions at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have been widely acknowledged, claims that detainee mistreatment is widespread throughout prisons under US military control have gained less traction in the mainstream media and Congress.

But a recent flood of documents, unleashed as a result of court-backed Freedom of Information Act requests, has begun to deluge the public with proof that detainees held at Guantánamo endured severe and unreported treatment at the hands of US personnel. Added to allegations from former and current prisoners, a leaked Red Cross report and accounts of US officials speaking to the press on condition of anonymity, the documents are just another piece of evidence that torture and abuse have occurred at the prison.

And yesterday, US military officials admitted that more than twenty prisoners had attempted a mass suicide in protest against the conditions at Guantánamo during one week in August 2003.

Louise Christian and Clive Stafford Smith, lawyers for the four recently-released detainees told the BBC that all four had been subjected to torture while in US custody and that they planned to sue the US government over their clients’ treatment.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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