- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

LONDON — Four British citizens and an Australian being held by the United States at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be released within the next few weeks to their home countries, officials in Britain and Australia announced yesterday.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament that after “intensive and complex discussions” about security, the Bush administration had agreed to allow the last four Britons held at Guantanamo to go home.

British police then will decide whether to arrest them on terrorism charges, he said.

The four — identified as Moazzam Begg of Birmingham, England, and Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar, all of London — have been held at the prison as terror suspects for up to three years.

At the same time, the Australian government announced that the United States was sending home Mamdouh Habib, a 48-year-old Egyptian-born Australian citizen, at Canberra’s request.

Australian officials said that they expected Mr. Habib, a father of four, to return to Sydney within a few days and that he would not be charged.

All five have been detained as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism that began after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon

The Financial Times in London reported that releasing the five was part of a plan to significantly reduce the number of prisoners held at the base in Cuba, thought to be about 550 non-U.S. citizens.

The newspaper quoted a U.S. defense official as saying that transferring a number of detainees back to their home countries was part of a plan to create a permanent prison at the base, to be called Camp Six. It would have space for up to 200 detainees whom Washington does not want to see released.

Mr. Straw told the House of Commons that negotiations for the return of the four British detainees has been under way since 2003.

“Once they are back in the UK, the police will consider whether to arrest them under the Terrorism Act 2000 for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activity,” he said.

The foreign secretary insisted that “every practical step” would be taken to maintain national security and public safety.

Ten months ago, the United States released five other British detainees from Guantanamo Bay and sent them home to Britain, where they were all freed without charge after several hours of questioning by police.

Three of them — Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul — subsequently complained in a 115-page statement that they had been tortured and mistreated by U.S. authorities at the Guantanamo Bay camp.

Of the last four Britons being sent home, Mr. Begg said in a letter declassified last year by the United States that he had been subjected to “vindictive torture” at the prison while having to listen to the “terrifying screams” of other inmates.

Moazzam Begg, a 36-year-old Muslim bookshop owner, left his home in Birmingham and moved with his family to Afghanistan in June 2001. He was arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 and was turned over to U.S. agents.

Mr. Belmar, a 25-year-old convert to Islam, also was arrested in Pakistan and sent to the prison in Cuba. Mr. Mubanga, who holds dual British and Zambian citizenship, was arrested in Afghanistan and handed over to U.S. authorities by local agents.

Mr. Abbasi, a 24-year-old computer school dropout, was apprehended in Afghanistan, where U.S. authorities said he had been trained in a camp run by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist organization.

The Australian captive, Mr. Habib, was arrested in Pakistan three weeks after the September 11 attacks and still is regarded as an enemy combatant by the United States, said Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock.

“However,” Mr. Ruddock said, “the United States government has now advised that it does not intend to bring charges against Mr. Habib. In these circumstances, the [Australian] government has requested Mr. Habib’s repatriation to Australia, [and] the United States has agreed to our request.”

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