British activists applaud release of Guantanamo prisoners

LONDON - Activists here celebrated the announcement Tuesday that the last four British prisoners being held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba would be freed, but said they would continue to campaign on behalf of hundreds of inmates from other countries still detained without trial.

In Washington, D.C., the Pentagon announced that the four Britons and an Australian would be released from U.S. custody within weeks, based on guarantees from the British and Australian governments that their nationals would be prevented from engaging in terrorist activities.

A total of nine British nationals were held in Guantanamo following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The other five were freed in March after human-rights protests and intensive government diplomacy. Those detainees were questioned briefly by police when they were returned to Britain and then released.

"Having campaigned long and hard over Guantanamo, we are delighted that the misery of these four men and the anguish of their families at last appears to be coming to an end," Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International for Britain, said of the four Britons whose release was announced Tuesday.

She said two foreign nationals at Guantanamo who are permanent British residents should also be freed and recalled that "more than 500 other detainees from around 40 countries remain in legal limbo."

"People's human rights and legal rights should not hang on whether or not that they are from a country friendly to the U.S.A.," Allen said.

"Just because you're British doesn't mean you're the only the only people with rights," said Clive Stafford Smith, an American attorney who represented two of the British prisoners. "It's very important that we do not forget the other lost souls in Guantanamo Bay."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced in Parliament the decision to release the four Britons, issuing a statement free of any criticism of U.S. policy.

Although the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has worked since 2003 to have all the British inmates at Guantanamo released its custody, Straw said the United States had been reasonable to detain and question captured Taliban or al-Qaida fighters "deemed to pose a substantial risk" of returning to violent activities.

If there is evidence, the released prisoners could face arrest and questioning Britain's Terrorist Act of 2000. Straw said he would not prejudge a police decision on that investigation.

Tuesday's announcement brought expressions of gratitude from Azmat Begg of Birmingham, England, father of the best-known British detainee awaiting release, Moazzam Begg. The elder Begg thanked the British people, constitutional and human-rights lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic, and activists who kept up pressure to get the prisoners released.

The younger Begg was seized in Pakistan in February 2002 and taken to Guantanamo by way of Afghanistan, where he has alleged in a letter that he was tortured and partially witnessed torture of two other inmates.

U.S. officials deny that they sanctioned torture. The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that prisoners in Guantanamo, held as enemy combatants, have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.


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