UK Has 'Strong Reservations' About Guantanamo Trials

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - More than 75 British lawmakers have signed a petition protesting the U.S. decision to make two U.K. citizens eligible for trial in special military courts. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said Wednesday that it also has serious concerns about the possible trials.

The two men are part of a group of about 680 terror suspects currently being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration announced last week that six of the men have been deemed eligible for trial by military tribunals.

The British lawmakers, including at least 66 members of Parliament from Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party, have signed a motion calling for Blair to try to repatriate the men so that they can face trial in Great Britain.

Blair said Wednesday that Britain is making "active representations" to the United States.

"Any commission or tribunal that tries these men must be one conducted within proper canons of law so that a fair trial is both taking place and seen to take place," he told Parliament during his weekly question-and-answer session.

"The precise nature of these trials has not yet been formulated, and therefore it is important that we wait and see whether our representations have been heeded," he said.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said Wednesday that Britain has "serious reservations" about the military tribunals.

"We've had ongoing discussions at many levels over this," he said.

The spokesman added that U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently held discussions about the detainees with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"It's very much a continuing exchange," he said, though the spokesman wouldn't say whether any progress had been made at the discussions.

The two British al Qaeda suspects have been named by the Foreign Office as Moazzam Begg of Birmingham and Feroz Abbasi of London.

British officials are concerned that some elements of due process might not apply in the military tribunals. They may face the death penalty if found guilty, another provision of the military courts that has irritated anti-capital punishment Britain.

Labor MP Chris Mullin, an assistant foreign secretary, told Parliament earlier this week that the British government had expressed "strong views" about the way the military trials will be conducted.

"We hope the U.S. will listen," Mullin said. "It is strongly in the interests of the United States that these trials are carried out in a fair and transparent fashion because it will effect the respect with which the U.S. is held throughout the world."

"The prime minister has on a number of occasions made clear that he regards conditions in Guantanamo Bay as unsatisfactory," Mullin said.

Mullin also took the unusual step of forwarding a copy of the House of Commons debate over Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. Ambassador in London, William Farish. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment Wednesday.

Cross-party protests

Skepticism about the military tribunals has cut across party lines. Mullin's statement and the subsequent debate were prompted by a question by Conservative MP Douglas Hogg.

"I think it's wholly inappropriate," Hogg said by phone Wednesday. "Either these characters have committed crimes for which there is valid evidence ... or else there isn't valid evidence and they should be released."

Hogg said he was concerned that any evidence collected through interrogation at Guantanamo Bay might not meet the standards of either U.S. or British criminal courts. He urged Blair's government to make stronger protests to the U.S. government.

During the Commons debate on Monday, Michael Ancram, the Tory foreign affairs spokesman, demanded that Blair's administration reveal further details of its negotiations with the United States.

"We have accepted that in dealing with serious matters of terrorism force is sometimes necessary, and changes in rules and procedures are required, but we have always insisted that the rule of law must apply," Ancram told the Commons.

In addition to the two Britons, an Australian citizen also has been made eligible for trial. In contrast to the British government, however, the Australian government has welcomed the U.S. plans.

In a joint release, Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that the presence of Australian David Hicks on the list of six would hopefully lead to the conclusion of his case.

"The government has held detailed discussions with the United States concerning any possible trials and is confident that any military commission trials will be fair and transparent," the release stated. "We have made every effort to ensure procedures for any possible trial will provide the fundamental guarantees of normal criminal processes."

"The government will continue to discuss Mr. Hicks' possible trial with the United States to ensure he is treated fairly and appropriately at all times," the Australian officials said.

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