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Two British detainees won't face death penalty

U.S., U.K. reach deal on pair held at Guantanamo

From Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

Feroz Abbasi, left, and Moazzem Begg were captured in Afghanistan.
Feroz Abbasi, left, and Moazzem Begg were captured in Afghanistan.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has promised not to seek the death penalty against two British nationals being detained at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the British attorney general and a senior Bush administration official have said.

"On the military commissions, the U.S. has assured us that the prosecution will not seek the death penalty in the cases of Feroz Abbasi and Moazzem Begg," Lord Goldsmith said in a written statement issued by the British Embassy in Washington.

Lord Goldsmith made the announcement after two days of what he called "constructive" talks with White House, Pentagon, State Department and Justice Department officials in Washington on the issue of British detainees at Guantanamo.

Begg and Abbasi are two of nine Britons being held at Guantanamo as enemy combatants after being captured in Afghanistan during military operations to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda. Two Australians are also being held under similar circumstances.

Abbasi and Begg are among six detainees that U.S. officials said would be the first to face trial by military tribunals that could impose death sentences. That sparked ire in Britain, which does not have the death penalty.

The talks came on the heels of a meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week, during which the two leaders said they were working toward a solution to the dispute.

A senior administration official confirmed the decision, and suggested the promise not to seek the death penalty was made "on a case-by case basis," and did not constitute a blanket immunity from the death penalty for British detainees in general.

The official said the facts in the cases of Begg and Abbasi, and the particular charges against them, allowed the United States and Britain to come to an agreement regarding the death penalty for the two.

Lord Goldsmith said that military tribunals against Begg and Abbasi "remain suspended" pending further U.S.-British discussions, and that he would return shortly to Washington for further talks about the "fairness of trial."

The British attorney general said Begg and Abbasi would be able to choose a U.S. civilian lawyer, and a British lawyer would be able to serve as a "consultant" to the defense.

The detainees would also be able to decide how much their appointed military council would participate in their defense.

"Exceptionally, conversations between Begg or Abbasi and his defense counsel would not be monitored or reviewed by U.S. authorities," Lord Goldsmith said, adding that their trials will be open to the public and the media.

In the meantime, Lord Goldsmith said in the statement that British officials "should immediately receive further access to Moazzem Begg and Feroz Abbasi" and that the United States will try to let the detainees on trial contact their families.

"The U.S. and U.K. will actively consider a mutually satisfactory arrangement to transfer any British national sentenced to a term of imprisonment by a military commission to serve his sentence in the U.K., to the extent feasible in accordance with U.S. and U.K. law," he added.

State Department Richard Boucher said Tuesday the United States was also talking with Australian legal experts about the Australian nationals detained in Guantanamo.

"We are actively considering all these legal issues and trying to work with the other governments involved to make sure that their concerns are satisfied," Boucher said.

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