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Blair under pressure on Guantanamo

Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg.
Abbasi (left) and Begg are being held at Guantanamo Bay.

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LONDON, England -- UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is coming under increasing pressure to raise the issue of British terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay when he meets U.S. President George W. Bush next week.

The British government says it is in talks with Washington about the possibility of bringing two of the suspects -- Feroz Abbasi, 23, and Moazzam Begg, 35 -- back to Britain for trial.

Bush announced last week that Abbasi and Begg were on an initial list of six suspects who could face U.S. military trial -- and the death penalty.

Begg was held in Pakistan in February 2002 and detained in Afghanistan for a year before being taken to the base on Cuba. Abbasi was arrested in Afghanistan in January 2002.

Neither has been charged. Their relatives, lawyers and human rights groups fear the U.S. military trials would be unfair.

Abbasi and Begg are among six Britons held at Guantanamo Bay.

"We are discussing a range of issues with the U.S. administration, including repatriation, and those discussions continue," a spokesman for Blair's office said Thursday.

He said the government had "strong reservations" about the military commissions, which are not covered by the U.S. constitution or U.S. civil courts because they are held on foreign soil.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has raised the issue twice with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in the past week.

"We have made clear to the United States that the detainees should be treated humanely," the spokesman said.

"We have said repeatedly that this is a highly unusual and difficult situation and obviously we would want to bring an end to it as swiftly as possible, but it is a complex situation.

"The information flowing from those at Guantanamo Bay is important in terms of the war against terrorism and we can't overlook that."

In the British parliament on Wednesday, Blair faced a barrage of calls from MPs in his own Labour Party demanding that the men be tried in Britain.

More than 200 MPs have signed a motion calling for the men to be given a fair trial.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the second-largest opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, said Blair should use his popularity among U.S. citizens to press for the two men to be tried in Britain.

Kennedy's foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said only Bush's intervention could secure the men's repatriation.

"The government has no legal sanction or leverage that one could bring to bear in this situation. The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are being held under a presidential order," he said.

"Tony Blair must ask for President Bush's personal intervention in order that British nationals are returned to Britain, where they would stand trial if the evidence justified it.

"The prime minister has said that this situation cannot carry on indefinitely. He can stop it by asking the president to intervene."

A member of Begg's family welcomed the latest statement from Downing Street.

The unnamed relative told the UK Press Association: "If what is being suggested is Moazzam will be brought back to be tried in a British court under due process, it is to be warmly welcomed by the family."

But the Fair Trials Abroad pressure group said the British government's announcement was virtually meaningless.

"The latest announcement that Downing Street is in active talks with the U.S. regarding possible transfer does not amount to much," said the group's director Stephen Jakobi.

"It is clear that this is just a reaction to overwhelming parliamentary pressure," he added in a statement, noting it did not matter where the trials took place as long as it was not under military jurisdiction.


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