What rights remain of the Guantanamo Bay detainees will be put to a quick test in Britain following the release of five Britons over the next few weeks.
While the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates the rights of the detainees, the release of five Britons becomes a test case within Europe that could influence decisions over the remaining detainees, leading lawyers here say.
The five Britons were held for more than two years without charge like the others. But their release now marks official admission that there was no good reason to detain them in the first place or at least to hold them in detention this long.
The five, Shafiq Rasul (26), Asif Iqbal (22), Ruhal Ahmed (21), Jamaluddin (37) and Tarek Dergoul (24) are expected back in Britain next month, but are unlikely to face any further prosecution.
British Home Secretary David Blunkett has said: “I think you will find that no one who is returnedàwill actually be a threat to the security of the British people.” The release of the five was secured after they were interrogated on several occasions by members of MI5, the British secret service.
The ‘official’ admission of unlawful detention raises questions about what compensation they can hope to get, but their lawyers are not optimistic.
“A great deal will depend on the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court whether the U.S. government acted illegally in holding these men in detention,” Greg Powell, solicitor for Ruhal Ahmed told IPS.
The U.S. Supreme Court in New York said Friday it will set guidelines for policy to detain terror suspects. The court is hearing the case of Yaser Esam Hamidi, a U.S. citizen captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Another case challenges the detention of non-U.S. citizens being held at Guantanamo Bay.
“There are real questions here of jurisdiction and how a judgment could be enforced,” Powell said. “But don’t forget that this is the court that handed the election to George Bush the way it did, and so we don’t have a lot of faith in it.”
But if the U.S. Supreme Court were to rule that the U.S. government acted unlawfully, “then we could sue the U.S. government for unlawful detention.”
Any compensation move would have to be made in individual cases because the circumstances differ, Powell said. “Someone was kidnapped from the Gambia, others were caught in Afghanistan, someone was stolen from Pakistan,” he said. “And the courts would take one view if someone was known just to be visiting family, and another if a suspect was known to be a Taliban sympathiser.”
In the latter case, he said, “who would be sympathetic to you?”
Unlawful detention raises larger questions of compensation, he said. And this was true for more people than the 14 held in London without trial for more than two years in what civil liberty groups have been calling Britain’s own Guantanamo Bay.
“Suspects are routinely imprisoned for maybe nine months at a time while they face trial in this country,” Powell said. “Then they can be told the charges are dropped, there is no case against them. Who compensates them?”
Solicitors acting for the five are pressing more immediate matters. Powell said he had written to the Foreign Office Friday to ask why there was a delay in releasing the men and for access to them before release. He had asked also for setting out the terms on which they were being released, and “whether the release would be only a transfer from one lock- up to another.”
The solicitors have asked also for an independent assessment of the physical and psychological state of the detained men. That could well become the basis of compensation claims other than those that could arise from detention.
“This whole business is not over by any means,” Powell said. “There are another 650 people there in Guantanamo Bay, and many of them could face execution.”
Nor is the campaign for the release of Britons over. Four other British nationals and three British residents will remain in detention.
The human rights organisation Amnesty said it is pleased over the release of the five British nationals and one Dane. “We remain concerned, however, about the fate of all others who continue to be held in Guantanamo, particularly those who may face trial by military commission.”
Amnesty urged governments around the world to make urgent representations on behalf of those held.
“All detainees should be afforded their full rights and should either be released or charged with a recognisably criminal offence and tried in court proceedings that fully meet international fair trial standards.”
Sanjay Suri is Inter Press Service’s editor for the Euro-Mediterranean region and London correspondent. He holds an M.A. in English literature from the University of Delhi, M.Sc in social and organisational psychology from the London School of Economics, and did media studies at Stanford University.