British Attorney-General slams as "unacceptable" the U.S. military trials of Guantánamo Bay detainees

REUTERS

Fri 25 June, 2004 17:25

By Andrew Cawthorne

LONDON (Reuters) - The country's top legal officer has slammed as "unacceptable" proposed U.S. military trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees in a speech reviving a rare rift between the closest allies in the global anti-terror war.

Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith's comments, released on Friday ahead of delivery in a speech in Paris, were one of the bluntest statements yet of London's disquiet over the U.S. handling of terror suspects at the U.S. base in Cuba.

"While we must be flexible and be prepared to countenance some limitation of fundamental rights if properly justified and proportionate, there are certain principles on which there can be no compromise," he was to say.

"Fair trial is one of those -- which is the reason we in the UK have been unable to accept that the US military tribunals ... offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards."

Britain has long said it believes rules laid out by Washington for tribunals to try detainees are unfair, but Goldsmith's remarks, hours before a visit to Europe by U.S. President George W. Bush, drew fresh attention to the dispute.

Goldsmith is the head of a British team negotiating over the fate of four Britons among some 600 people held without charge at the camp, suspected of fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan or supporting al Qaeda radicals.

Five Britons were released from Guantanamo in March. Several alleged mistreatment by U.S. interrogators.

The Pentagon has yet to hold any trials under the proposed rules. It says trials would be fair, but that the entire process would be controlled by the Defence Department and there is no right to appeal to a civilian court. Access to lawyers would be restricted and defendants will not see secret evidence.

UK ALSO "FAILS" ON RIGHTS?

While Blair's government is uneasy over Guantanamo, it has itself been lambasted by campaigners for the detention of 17 foreigners under emergency post-September 11 powers allowing indefinite imprisonment without char ge.

"Britain's indefinite detention regime fails every test," said Rachel Denber, of Human Rights Watch, in a statement this week. "It violates fundamental human rights, and it's not clear it has made Britain a safer place."

Goldsmith, in his Paris speech, defended the policy as the only way to deal with foreign suspects who will not leave Britain voluntarily but cannot be deported because they face death, torture or mistreatment in their nations of origin.

"We cannot force them to go because of concern for their own human rights," Goldsmith said in his speech.

Of the 17, two have voluntarily left Britain and one was released after a secret court ruled the government had failed to show reasonable grounds to suspect he was a terrorist. Another was moved to house arrest after a court ruled his indefinite detention without charge had driven him insane.

"In taking and using these powers, our commitment to the rule of law and to the values of our democracy remain. This has not been a step we have taken l ightly," Goldsmith said.

"Extraordinary events will lead to derogations from the practices we observe in times of peace and tranquillity."

-- Additional reporting by Peter Graff.