Kim Sengupta and Arifa Akbar
The images were stark and shocking. Britons, swathed in orange overalls, hooded and shackled, kneeling in front of their American captors. Others, on stretchers, being wheeled into mesh cages. None of them charged, let alone convicted, of any crime, yet facing indefinite sentences in prison.
No charges, no trial, no basic human justice, and no explanation or compensation for those held prisoner for over two years by the USA government.
The unabating controversy caused by the treatment of British citizens arrested in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then shipped off to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, was one of the most embarrassing problems faced by Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, as he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with President George Bush in the war on terror.
The announcement yesterday by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, that five of the nine British prisoners at Camp X-Ray were to be released showed, the Government said, that the men had not been forgotten, and that prolonged and painstaking negotiations had been taking place behind the scenes on their behalf.
But even as Mr Straw was making his speech at the Foreign Office, there were accusations and recriminations. The families and lawyers of the four still being held, with support from Muslim organisations and human rights groups, renewed their protest. There were also demands for explanations as to why it had taken so long to secure the freedom of the others.
Suhul Ahmed, the elder brother of Ruhul Ahmed, one of those being freed, said:
Moazzam Begg, 36, from Birmingham, is one of those not being freed. His father Azmat described the family’s disappointment and anger at his non-release. “This is just a face-saving gesture by the Americans. It was plainly illegal to keep those men there,” he said.
A father’s tears gives a glimpse of the torture Moazzam Begg’s family has to endure, knowing that justice for his son is still far off.
Janet Paraskeva, the chief executive of the Law Society, said there was deep concern about Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, two of the men not coming back, who are likely to face an American military court. “These men have been held for over two years and their families are extremely concerned about their physical and mental health,” she said.
Raza Kazim, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, added: “I am very concerned that it has taken them all this long time to come up with this announcement. Why have only five been brought back and not the others, when Jack Straw himself has said that military tribunals cannot possibly offer the proper legal process?”
Stephen Jakobi of Fair Trials Abroad, said: “The big question is, why weren’t they released at least 18 months ago? What has happened since?”
There also appeared to be confusion about what the future held for the returning detainees in Britain. Asked whether they could pose a security threat, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said: “I think you will find that no one who is returned in the announcement today will actually be a threat to the security of the British people.”
However, at the same time, Scotland Yard’s National Coordinator for Terrorism, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, was certainly not ruling out possible prosecutions. “We have a responsibility to all communities to investigate suspected terrorist activity, which includes all the circumstances which led to the men’s detention,” he said. “The Anti-Terrorist Branch is conducting investigations which will consider the case of each man individually. This process will involve close liaison with the Crown Prosecution Service.”
Life, the interrogations, the oppressive camp regime, and the indignity of unjust imprisonment goes on for the hundreds still detained in Guantanamo Bay.
All the prisoners, with the exception of one, were arrested in Afghanistan or Pakistan, either by US or Pakistani forces, in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul. Martin Mubanga, 29, from north London, was picked up in Zambia after visiting Afghanistan.
The families of the detainees had always maintained their innocence, although some were captured during fighting inside Afghanistan. Tarek Dergoul, a 24-year-old former care worker from east London, of Moroccan descent, was held after US and Northern Alliance forces clashed with the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in the Tora Bora mountains.
Mr Dergoul, one of whose hands was reportedly amputated due to shrapnel wounds, had told his family when he went to Pakistan in 2001 that he intended to learn Arabic.
Asif Iqbal, 20, one of the so-called “Tipton Three” detainees from the town in the West Midlands, was captured in northern Afghanistan by Northern Alliance soldiers while allegedly fighting for the Taliban. He had reportedly gone to Pakistan, accompanied by his father Mohammed, to get married.
Shafiq Rusul, 25, a fervent Liverpool fan who was into fashion and clubbing, according to his family, was supposedly among Taliban and al-Qa’ida prisoners who mutinied in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Others maintained they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Jamal al-Harith, also known as Jamal Udeen, a 35-year-old website designer from Manchester of Jamaican descent, claimed that he was on a backpacking holiday trekking from Pakistan to Iran when he was captured by the Taliban and imprisoned. Instead of freeing him, the Americans, when they came, sent him off to Cuba.
The capture of young British men in the killing fields of Afghanistan was seen as a worrying indicator of levels of disenchantment within the Muslim community, and the extent to which fundamentalism had made inroads. Islamic leaders stressed yesterday that the prospect of legal actions against those returning, and those in America, will do nothing to heal the bitter divisions.
The Five Freed Due to be Freed
Shafiq Rasul, 24, from Tipton
Shafiq lived a few streets away from Asif Iqbal in Tipton. His family describe him as shy and “westernised”. He travelled to Pakistan in October 2001 for a computer course, and his family lost contact with him in December. His brother Habib described him as a football-mad Liverpool fan. He said: “I sent a few football magazines and some pictures of the family to him. They came back three months later, with a label saying: “Suspicious items, return to sender.”
Ruhal Ahmed, 21, from Tipton
His father Risoth says that his son left for Pakistan in 2001 with Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal to attend a wedding. They were at the Alexandra High School in Tipton. He was held in Qandahar in Afghanistan and sent to Cuba. His father is a British citizen who came from what is now Bangladesh. His family say he was “a friendly boy” and a practising Muslim. He had a part-time job in a factory and helped in community centres. Mr Ahmed said: “He is a kid, straight out of school. How could he be a terrorist?”
Asif Iqbal, 20, from Tipton
Before his detention the last news from Asif was when he phoned his father from Karachi, where he went to meet friends. His parents were of Pakistani origin and moved to Britain 40 years ago. His father was a railway worker. Asif studied at the Sacred Heart school and the Alexandra High School in Tipton alongside other detainees, Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed. He left school at 16 to work in a factory. His family had suggested that he go to Pakistan to meet a bride.
Jamal al Harith, 35, from Manchester
Also known as Jamal Udeen, the web designer, 35, is of Jamaican origin. Born Ronald Fiddler to devout church-going parents, he converted to Islam in his 20s. His family say he is a gentle man. After learning Arabic and teaching in Sudan, he returned home, got married and set up a business. He worked in a Muslim school.
Tarek Dergoul, 23, from London
A former east London care worker, he is the son of a Moroccan baker and a lifelong Muslim. In 2001 he had told his family he was flying to Pakistan to learn Arabic. He is believed to have been sent to Guantanamo Bay in May 2002.
The Four British Detainees Still Held
Freroz Abbasi, 23, from Croydon, near London
Born in Uganda, he moved to Britain with his family when he was eight and lived in Croydon. He reportedly attended Edenham High School. After A-levels at the John Ruskin college, he took a two-year computing course. He is thought to have regularly worshipped at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, where the Muslim firebrand Abu Hamza gave his sermons. In January 2002 he was arrested in Afghanistan as an “unlawful combatant” and then transferred to Camp Delta. In November 2002 the British Court of Appeal said it found his detention in Cuba “legally objectionable”, but stopped short of forcing the government to intervene. His mother, Zumrati Juma, said she last saw her son in December 2000 before he went to Afghanistan. Since imprisonment, contact with his mother and family has been limited.
Moazzam Begg, 36, from Birmingham
The language teacher and law student ran a bookshop selling religious and historical books and videotapes, before he decided to move his family to Afghanistan to carry out charity work, according to his relatives. Mr Begg, 31, who has four children, was arrested on suspicion of links with the Taliban regime or the al-Qa’ida terrorist network by the CIA in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad in February 2002, then moved to Cuba in February last year. His family have been refused permission to visit, although they have been able to write. Mr Begg’s father says he has not been told why his son is being detained and has not received any letters from him since August 2003. He is one of the two men who face a potential military tribunal.
Richard Belmar, 23, from West London
He is believed to have attended a Catholic school in north London, and converted to Islam while in his teens, after his elder brother had done so. He worshipped at Regent’s Park mosque, close to his home in Maida Vale, west London. He travelled to Pakistan, where he was first detained, before the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Martin Mubanga, 29, from North London
A former motorcycle courier whose parents came from Zambia and was raised as a Catholic. He has joint Zambian and British nationality. His family moved to Britain in the 1970s. He converted to Islam in his twenties. It is not clear when or how he got to Afghanistan. He fled the country and was arrested in Zambia by the local authorities before being placed in the custody of the Americans. It is reported that he arrived in Zambia after leaving Afghanistan.
Two Years Imprisonment - No Charges or Trial
11 January 2002. First 20 alleged Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters from Afghanistan are flown to detention centre known as Camp X-Ray.
14 January 2002. Foreign Office says three Britons held.
20 January 2002. Graphic pictures show prisoners bound and deprived of sense of sight, sound and touch. Feroz Abbasi from Croydon is the first Briton identified.
1 March 2002. 100 detainees start a hunger strike after a prisoner is told to remove a turban.
2 July 2002. British detainees win right to challenge their imprisonment in the High Court.
3 August 2002. 564 detainees, now seven Britons, are moved to the nearby Camp Delta.
23 September 2002. US releases a small number considered no threat.
22 February 2003. Number of Britons now nine.
17 July 2003. At a press conference with Tony Blair, George Bush says: “The only thing we know for certain is that these are bad people.”
21 July 2003. Attorney General begins talks with US on the fate of the Britons.
19 November 2003. Mr Blair raises issue with Mr Bush during state visit to UK.
19 February 2004. Jack Straw announces five British detainees will be released.
Article courtesy of The Independent
Kim Sengupta and Arifa Akbar