British split with U.S. over tribunal
LONDON – In a challenge to the Bush administration’s policies at Guantanamo prison, Britain’s top legal officer said Friday that the current U.S. plans for trying British citizens in a military tribunal are unfair and violate international standards.
The public protest by Lord Peter Goldsmith, the British attorney general, comes in spite of a U.S. promise that British citizens would not be subject to the death penalty, as would prisoners of other nationalities, and the release in March of five of the nine British citizens held at Guantanamo.
It also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality and constitutionality of the Guantanamo prison camp, where 600 inmates have been held, some for nearly three years, without access to attorneys or their families, and with no fixed terms of incarceration.
Britain is the Bush administration’s closest ally in its war on terrorism. It has provided more than 10,000 troops to the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq.
But after months of quiet diplomacy failed to move the Bush administration to accept requests from Foreign Minister Jack Straw to repatriate the remaining British internees at Guantanamo so that they can be investigated and tried here, officials apparently have decided to increase the pressure by airing their dissent openly.
Goldsmith has been leading British efforts to negotiate with the U.S. authorities for the turning over of the detainees, who were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan or are suspected of being supporters of al Qaeda.
The remarks by Goldsmith, which were to be delivered Friday night at the International Criminal Law Association in Paris, were made public in advance to the BBC and Britain’s Press Association news service.
Goldsmith said that Britain is prepared to accept “some limitation of fundamental rights” in order to combat terrorism, but that “there are certain principles on which there can be no compromise.”
“Fair trial is one of those – which is the reason that we in the U.K. have been unable to accept that the U.S. military tribunals proposed for those detained in Guantanamo Bay offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards,” he said.
Human rights groups have harshly criticized the military commissions, ordered by the Bush administration in November 2001. They say the judges, as military officers, would not be independent; that under current plans the defendants would not be allowed to question witnesses or see all the evidence against them; and that evidence obtained through coercive means could be used.
In additions, convictions would not be subject to review by an independent judiciary and only President Bush would be able to grant pardons.
In public statements, Bush already has labeled the Guantanamo prisoners as a group as “killers.” They have not been granted prisoner of war status, which would guarantee protections under the Geneva Convention. Instead, they are regarded as enemy combatants.
The U.S. government has denied accusations of released prisoners that the Guantanamo prisoners are subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse. It says that they are being treated humanely.