sad day for justice
sad day for justice
Senior ministers are resigned to the prospect that the two British prisoners who face US military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba cannot be repatriated to stand trial in UK courts because the legal barriers to such a political compromise are insurmountable.
The stalemate has become hugely embarrassing to Tony Blair as he heads for Washington this week to enjoy the rare honour of addressing a joint session of Congress.
The Britons are among six designated prisoners - held incommunicado for 18 months since the Afghan campaign - facing secret justice before a military tribunal. If they plead not guilty, they could risk the death penalty for alleged terrorist offences.
The fact that two of the six are British citizens has led to speculation in Whitehall that they may have been chosen in the hope that, faced with a strong prosecution case, they will accept plea-bargaining and tell what they know in return for leniency.
But British officials deny claims by MPs who have visited Capitol Hill that a formal US offer to send back Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi was rejected by David Blunkett, the home secretary, because he could not guarantee, as the Bush administration had demanded, that they would face trial in Britain for alleged intelligence offences.
"That offer might have been discussed among US officials, but there were the usual fissures between the state department and the department of defence. It was never agreed among them," said one Whitehall official. The US defence department would control a military tribunal at Guantanamo.
One former minister with close military and political contacts in the US is adamant that he was told in Washington: "We would be happy to send these guys back, but you have no law to prosecute them. We are not going to just let them go."
British lawyers say that intelligence or interrogation-based evidence would make it hard for the crown prosecution service even to try to mount a successful prosecution and that, in any case, defence lawyers would argue that lack of access to their clients for 18 months rendered a fair trial impossible.