Guantanamo Bay

– in the House of Commons at 12:58 pm on 11th January 2005.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary 12:58 pm, 11th January 2005

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement concerning the return to the United Kingdom of the four British citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Let me first recall the context. The attacks of 11 September 2001 were the worst terrorist atrocity that the United States, the United Kingdom and the whole world have ever suffered. In response to those attacks, a coalition of countries came together to launch a military campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, to remove them from their strongholds in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In those operations, thousands of individuals believed to be al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters or their supporters were detained by coalition forces. The vast majority of those individuals were released, but those who were deemed to pose a substantial risk of returning to the conflict were sent by the United States to detention facilities at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, there to be detained and questioned about their knowledge of al-Qaeda's activities. As a result, valuable information has been gained, which has helped to protect the international community from further al-Qaeda and related terrorist attacks.

Approximately 200 individuals have been released from Guantanamo Bay since their original detention. However, the United States Government believe that a number of detainees so released have returned to terrorism, demonstrating the dilemma faced by the United States in considering such releases.

Nine British citizens were among those originally detained at Guantanamo Bay. I and the Government as a whole have taken our consular responsibilities to those detained very seriously. British officials have visited them regularly, delivered messages and mail from their families and secured improvements in the physical conditions of their detention. I have made a written ministerial statement to the House following each of those visits.

I have also set out to the House on many occasions the British Government's consistent position in relation to these detainees and their detention. As the House will recall, discussions took place in 2003, led by my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General on the UK side. The Government then requested the return of all of the British detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

Five of the nine detainees were returned to the United Kingdom last March. In announcing their return to the House on 24 February last year, I said that the Government would continue to work to resolve the position of the remaining four British detainees: Feroz Abbasi, Moazzam Begg, Jamaal Belmar and Martin Mubanga. Since last March, the Government have been in regular discussion with the United States authorities about this. Foreign Office Ministers and I have also held a number of meetings with the families and lawyers of the four men and with their Members of Parliament, and officials have been in regular contact with them.

Following contact between the United Kingdom and the United States—involving, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his office—and between United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and myself, the United States Government have now agreed to the return of all four men to the United Kingdom. That decision follows intensive and complex discussions to address United States security concerns. All the families have been informed of that decision this morning, as have their Members of Parliament.

The four men will be returned in the next few weeks. Once they are back in the United Kingdom, the police will consider whether to arrest them under the Terrorism Act 2000 for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activity. Any subsequent action will be a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The House will understand that it would therefore not be right for me to comment further on that aspect of the matter.

I should like to assure the House that every practical step will be taken by the relevant United Kingdom authorities to maintain national security and to protect public safety. Throughout the period of detention of British nationals in Guantanamo Bay, the Government have sought to balance the need to safeguard the interests of Britons detained overseas with our duty to meet the threat from international terrorism.

Terrorism is opposed to the values of every faith and religion, and seeks to deny the most basic of human rights—the right to life, to security and to go about our daily business free from harm. Working with our allies, we will continue resolutely to defend those rights through a robust and determined approach to combating terrorism and its networks of support wherever these are found.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State for International Affairs, Shadow Foreign Secretary & Deputy Leader, International Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of this statement.

I welcome the announcement of the return of those four British citizens. The Opposition have unremittingly supported the fight against terrorism, but equally, we have always believed that such a fight must be conducted within the rule of law. We have for some time expressed reservations about detention without due process or trial at Guantanamo Bay—reservations recently given even stronger expression by the United States Supreme Court.

Although those are the last of the British citizens being held at Guantanamo Bay, our reservations in principle remain, as they involve a strong ally with whom we are rightly continuing to work closely in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that regard, while fully accepting the United States dilemma to which the Foreign Secretary referred, what further representations will he make to our American allies about the process of detention at Guantanamo Bay?

My general welcome of this announcement still leaves serious questions to be answered. Given our concern that justice by due process is done in relation to those four, what assurances can the Foreign Secretary give that they will be subjected to normal due process in this country on their return?

The British public must be protected from terrorists. Is the Foreign Secretary satisfied in general on the information available to him that, on their return, those four will not pose a threat to the security of this country or its citizens? What assurances can he give that the protection of British citizens from the threat of terrorism will not in any way be undermined by the release, as opposed to the return, of those four men?

Those men were taken into custody by United States forces in the chaotic circumstances of post-Taliban Afghanistan and near the notoriously unpoliceable Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Has the Foreign Secretary established to his satisfaction the circumstances in which those four were originally apprehended?

The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay did not just raise serious concerns at the process by which people were detained there. Serious questions have also been raised about the treatment of detainees. For instance, one of them, Moazzam Begg, alleges that he was the victim of torture. Obviously, that is a most serious allegation. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm whether the detainees will be asked not only about any allegation against them, but about the conditions that they underwent at Guantanamo Bay?

Does the return of those four bring with it any assurance that no British citizen will in future be held in Guantanamo Bay or in similar circumstances elsewhere without due process? Indeed, will the Foreign Secretary assure us that there are currently no further British citizens being held anywhere else in similar circumstances?

Winning the fight against terrorism requires us to win too, the fight for hearts and minds, both in Britain and in the Muslim world. In the struggle against terrorists, the balance between security and liberty is notoriously difficult to strike. The first duty of the Government is to defend their people, but was not the late United States President Eisenhower right to warn:

"We must not destroy what we are attempting to defend"?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the welcome that he has given to the release of those four gentlemen. Let me try to deal with his points in turn. We have an immediate locus in so far as our consular duties are concerned in respect of British citizens. With their return to the United Kingdom, representations about the specific conditions at Guantanamo Bay in respect of the British citizens will obviously come to an end. However, as members of the international community and signatories to various international conventions, we remain concerned about the conditions in which individuals have been, and continue to be, held there, and within that context, we will continue to make representations about them.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks whether normal due process will apply to those individuals when they return. Yes, of course, and I made that clear. He asks whether I can guarantee that those individuals do not pose a threat to the security of the United Kingdom. We have in place strengthened anti-terrorist legislation, including the Terrorism Act 2000 and the 2001 legislation. Those laws exist to ensure that those who pose a threat to the security of the United Kingdom are dealt with effectively. I will certainly not prejudge the guilt of any individual in advance of investigation by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the other appropriate authorities.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about the allegations of mistreatment made by Moazzam Begg in particular. I am aware of those allegations, and I have already received oral representations about them by his family and his lawyers. We are pursuing those allegations with the United States authorities, and we will continue to do so. British consular officials visited the detainees on nine separate occasions in very difficult circumstances. It is fair to say that our officials, on my behalf, gave the British detainees a higher level of consular representation than did the foreign Governments of any other nationals who were held at Guantanamo Bay.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman finally asks whether I can be satisfied that no British citizen is held in any similar circumstance. The answer is that it is almost impossible to prove a negative, but I know of no other British citizen held at Guantanamo Bay in those circumstances; neither do I expect that any will be dispatched there.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

It appears that these men are about to be rescued from what has effectively been a legal no-man's land, and it would be churlish not to welcome that, but a number of questions remain. Why has it taken so long? What undertakings, if any, have been given to the United States Government about the way in which the men are to be treated once they return to the United Kingdom? What do the Government understand to be the state of health, both mental and physical, of these men?

Whatever the context, the truth is that the detention of these men violated all legal principle. Their civil rights were systematically and deliberately abused, and they were denied due process, a cornerstone of American legal jurisprudence. Has not this been a damaging episode which should never again be repeated?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome for the announcement. I understand the concerns that he expressed so eloquently. It is important to understand the grave anxieties that arose in the United States following the 11 September atrocities, which was the first time that an attack by foreigners had taken place on its mainland in at least living memory. It produced the largest single set of casualties on the mainland since the American civil war. It has to be understood what a trauma the United States faced. There is no point dismissing that. It is a fact. The decisions that it made have to be seen in that context.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked why it has taken so long. It has taken this long to hold intensive discussions on the need for the United States to release the men and to recognise that they would be subject to our law, agreed by this Parliament, and no other law. That is what has happened. No side undertakings, which I think was in his mind, have been given to the US Government about how they will or will not be treated. They will be treated in accordance with the law. As happened with the five who were released last March, and as I said in my statement, it will be a matter for the police acting under the powers of the Terrorism Act 2000 to consider whether to interview them and detain them when they arrive in the UK, and a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service to take any action following on from that.

On the men's state of health, consular officials who visited them gave their own, but necessarily superficial and unqualified, assessment of the state of their physical health. It appeared to be reasonable, but that does not amount to a qualified assessment of the state of their physical, mental or psychological health. That will be a matter for them and their medical advisers.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

The House will understand the dilemma posed by my right hon. Friend, but he must surely agree that the Guantanamo Bay saga has been very damaging to the image of the west and reduces our moral authority in the world. Will any allegations made by those who are to be released, together with those in the dossier published last August in respect of the other five, be strenuously pursued by my right hon. Friend? Will he also confirm that our concern extends beyond our nationals to the principle of detention in Guantanamo Bay in general? How do the Government view the proposals of the US Government either to set up a special prison, Camp Six, within Guantanamo Bay, where people can be held without trial indefinitely, or to hold those people in prisons within their countries of origin?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Any allegations that the gentlemen make will be pursued vigorously. Indeed, we are already pursuing some allegations in advance of their release. I think I answered the question about whether our concern extends beyond our nationals held in Guantanamo Bay. The answer is yes, but obviously the context in which we can make representations is different. We can only do that in respect of individuals if they are British citizens.

On the process that the US Government have established, it was as a direct result of representations by us on two of the four detainees that they abandoned their efforts to take those individuals before the military tribunals, which we regarded as flawed in process. On the establishment of the special prisons, I have only seen the newspaper reports on that. It is a matter for the US Government. They will have to make the decisions and be answerable for them.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Foreign Secretary said that he was not aware of other British citizens held in similar circumstances in Guantanamo Bay. My right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary asked whether he was aware of British citizens held elsewhere in similar circumstances. Will he answer the question?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am aware of some British citizens detained elsewhere. I am not aware of British citizens detained in similar circumstances. That is the answer to the question.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

Although I, like others, welcome the release of the men from Guantanamo Bay, the episode is nevertheless a dark stain on the reputation of the United States and has damaged our country's reputation throughout the world, particularly among Muslim nations.

My constituent, Jamal al-Harith, who was released last March, tells me that he has not been interviewed by the police since he arrived in Britain. He has certainly not been interviewed by Foreign Office officials or other domestic officers about the treatment he received in Guantanamo Bay; nor has there been an assessment of his mental or physical state of health. That is wrong. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could dwell on that. If we are to establish the facts that took place with respect to the four, it is important that proper interviewing takes place, including retrospective interviewing of my constituent.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My understanding is that each of the five who returned last March was interviewed by the police on arrival. I am as certain as I can be that that was the case. Police liaison officers were appointed for each of them.

As to whether we should proactively interview them about wider issues, it is normal for individuals who have complaints about treatment abroad to make those known to us, not directly, but through their Members of Parliament or solicitors. At that stage, we investigate them. It is my long experience that individuals are never slow in coming forward to make representations and we are always speedy and efficient in investigating them. It goes without saying that if my hon. Friend, the individual or his solicitor have concerns about his treatment which the individual thinks have not been made known to the British Government, we are happy to receive those representations. By definition, the concerns have to be initiated by the individual. We cannot second-guess his experiences.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does the Secretary of State accept that the very long time it has taken to get the United States to accept what surely ought to have been a natural reaction to representations by what has been her closest ally—even though many of us are unhappy about what we have done—casts doubt on the nature of the alliance? It is therefore important that he accepts the task of encouraging, pressing and pushing the United States to change its attitude to the kind of detention that has taken place in Guantanamo Bay. Its attitude damages the fight against terrorism because we have adopted there, as I believe we are adopting here, the very attitudes to human rights that we are trying to stop others removing.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Our position was different from that of the United States Government all the way through, and I set it out in the House on 24 February 2005, when I said that our overall position remained that the detainees should either be tried in accordance with international standards or returned to the United Kingdom. I do not think that the fact of Guantanamo Bay, difficult as it has been, casts doubt on the nature of the alliance. Indeed, had it not been for the nature of our alliance with the United States, we would not have got those nine detainees back. The issue of liberty and order and the way in which we deal with it is raised in its most acute form at times of war and terrorism. It is easy to defend ordinary human rights when the most important one—the right to life—is not under attack. When it is under attack, that defence becomes much more difficult.

I fully subscribe to the right hon. Gentleman's implication that we should never stoop to the level of the terrorists. However, it is accepted in the language of the European convention on human rights, many other international conventions and our own practice in the United Kingdom that when that most basic right, the right to life, is under attack, democratic liberal Governments are entitled to take action which, in normal circumstances, they would not be entitled to take, to defend it, as without it all other human rights become completely nugatory.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

May I welcome the decision to release my constituent, Richard Belmar, who has been detained for three years without charge? I welcome the continued work behind the scenes by the Attorney-General and the Foreign Office while deploring the time that it has taken for the United States Government to respond. Many of my constituents, especially, but by no means exclusively, my Muslim constituents, have expressed the gravest concern about the suspension of due legal process. Without doubt, the existence of Guantanamo Bay has created perceptions in the Muslim community that due process does not apply equally to Muslims and non-Muslims. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will pursue a three-track strategy of providing proper support to the family of my constituent; ensuring that due process is followed in the event of any charges or investigation; and doing everything possible to assure my constituents that public safety remains paramount?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. As with other hon. Members, she has been assiduous and tenacious in her representations on behalf of her constituent who was detained. On the issue of proper support for the family, most of that will be provided locally rather than nationally, but if there are issues of concern, I am happy to meet her to discuss them. The answer to both her second and third points is yes.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Liberal Democrat, Brent East

The news of Martin Mubanga's release is obviously hugely welcome for his family in my constituency, and I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me advance notice of his statement. This morning, I spoke to Martin's family, who are relieved but also cautious. They are hardened, having steeled themselves for two or three years for bad news. They are unsure about how Martin will be on his return, given his allegations about torture and mistreatment while in Guantanamo Bay. However, there is not any news of my other constituent, Jamil el-Banna, a Jordanian refugee who is a long-time British resident. What efforts are being made to secure his release, and will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government will not seek to revoke his refugee status, as previously suggested by Ministers in the other place?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks. I understand the caution of Martin Mubanga's family, who are bound to be worried until each of those individuals is on British soil and back with their families. I hope, however, that that will be in the very near future. I am happy to receive any representations that the hon. Lady and the family wish to make.

As for Mr. el-Banna, the House will be aware that in international law we only have the standing to take up consular matters in respect of British citizens. That is a fact of international law, and it applies to citizens and nationals of all third countries. It means that we cannot make representations on behalf of people, however long they have been resident in the UK, who are not our nationals. More to the point, the US Government, consistent with their obligations under international law, would not accept such representations. I know that that is frustrating, and I have seen the families of a number of people in that position, but that is the situation. On the issue of that gentleman's refugee status, I am afraid that I know nothing whatever about it and, in any event, it is not a matter for me but for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies PPS (Team PPS), Department for Constitutional Affairs

I warmly welcome the statement by right hon. Friend on behalf of the family of Feroz Abbasi, who feared that he might be incarcerated in perpetuity without charge in Guantanamo Bay. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as the standard bearers of peace, democracy and justice, we will continue to fight for the rights of individuals to fair trial and fair treatment, whether in Guantanamo Bay or anywhere else in the world? Given the mental stress that the detainees have suffered for three years, will he ensure that there is a full evaluation of their mental health, and ensure that appropriate medical and financial support is provided for their rehabilitation? Can he reassure the British public that every effort will be made in future to protect both their security and their right to a fair trial, whether in Britain or abroad?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. He, too, has been assiduous and tenacious in his representations on behalf of his detained constituent, Mr. Abbasi. On the issue of support, most of it, such as medical services, will be the responsibility of local medical authorities and local authorities. Our aim, not only in law but in respect of services to which those individuals are entitled, is that they should receive the same services as any other British citizen. Given the special circumstances of their detention of up to three years, I am happy to receive representations from my hon. Friend and to follow them up. On his final point, it has been difficult seeking to balance the security of the international community and this country with the rights of those individuals, but I have always believed that the approach of the British Government is the right one.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have pressed him many times in the House about the illegality of what the United States has done. Assuming that none of the nine is charged before a British court, would it not be right for the British Government to press the United States to compensate them for clearly illegal action? Would he also ask the prosecution authorities in this country to reflect before they prosecute any of the nine? If any of them were convicted and sent to prison, they would not get any credit for the time that they have been held unlawfully in Guantanamo Bay.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

On the issue of compensation, if we receive representations, we will consider them, just as we do for other British citizens, and follow them up. If those people were subject to trial in this country and conviction led to their detention in prison, the question of whether they could be given credit for their previous detention would not be a matter for me but for the learned judge in the case. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows better than I the way in which that system operates.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

May I welcome the Minister's statement, and acknowledge the role that the Foreign Office played in securing the release of the three detainees from Tipton last year? Subsequently, however, those three and others have made allegations of torture and ill-treatment in Guantanamo Bay. Their perception is that the Foreign Office is not listening to them, so will the Minister give an undertaking that if they wish to present their allegations to him, he will meet them and, if necessary, make representations to the US Government?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

First, the Foreign Office does listen to representations. A significant part of its job is making representations on behalf of British citizens who face consular difficulties, small and large. Secondly, I am happy to see my hon. Friend and the families concerned if there is time—if not, I will ask another Minister to do so—and if appropriate.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My constituent, Bisher Al-Rawi, was arrested on a legitimate business trip to the Gambia and has been illegally incarcerated for more than two years. In reply to my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, the Foreign Secretary said that he cannot make representations on behalf of people such as Bisher, who is not a British national but who has permanent residency rights in the UK. In the past, however, he and his officials have implied that the FCO is prepared to ask questions. That being the case, does he know whether the Americans plan to release people such as Bisher? If so, will he undertake to seek Bisher's release to the UK to face charges, if there is any evidence against Bisher?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I saw the hon. Gentleman and the family concerned. In that case, although the gentleman lived in the UK for many years and would be entitled to British citizenship, he voluntarily chose not to seek British citizenship and to maintain his Iraqi citizenship, although other members of his family chose to become British citizens. That situation creates a dilemma, and people must make a choice. We can represent British citizens, including those who are well qualified for British citizenship and who acquire British citizenship after birth. We cannot represent those who choose not to seek British citizenship and who make their own choices, presumably because they want to maintain the citizenship of their birth. That is the law of the land, and it is the law of the international community.

I went to the trouble of seeing the hon. Gentleman and the family and gave them a lot of time. Other Ministers and I continue to be available to meet hon. Members and families, whether the matter concerns British citizens or others, but the degree to which we can make representations in respect of individual cases is limited. We will continue to test the envelope on behalf of the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members and their constituents. However, I do not want to raise hopes in cases in which the circumstances are very difficult.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General on their work—they have given us excellent news in advance of Eid celebrations, which will take place next week. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the detainees were subsequently to decide to pursue an action against the United States of America, Sir David Manning and his officials in Washington would give them and their legal representatives every possible support?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. If actions were taken against the US Government in the US, we would consider any representations, but we cannot make such decisions in advance.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs; Treasury), Leader, Scottish National Party

Given that a Law Lord has described Guantanamo Bay as a position of utter lawlessness, will the welcome return of the four individuals under the rule of law bring about in a change in the Government's attitude to those detained without trial or charge in Belmarsh prison?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The position of those in Belmarsh is and always has been completely different from that of those detained in Guantanamo Bay, and it is ludicrous to compare either the conditions or the nature of the detention. The position of those held in Belmarsh is controversial, and it was at the heart of their lordships' decision. However, it is a fact that the individuals held in Belmarsh can leave the United Kingdom, if they can find another country to take them. That facility was never available to anyone in Guantanamo Bay, which all nine individuals would have left if the same arrangements had been in place. It is ludicrous to make any comparison whatsoever.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is actively considering the future of detentions under part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and he will make a statement as soon as he can.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

A few moments ago, my right hon. Friend said that he would consider applications for compensation. Will the Government consider making ex gratia payments, provided that those individuals are not charged by the police in this country for offences under the terrorism Acts? It seems to me that those individuals will live under a cloud and will be virtually unemployable.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

We consider representations in respect of applications before the US courts. In this country, however, ex gratia payments are made by the British taxpayer in respect of unlawful detention by Her Majesty's Government. Those detentions were neither made nor approved by Her Majesty's Government, so the question of ex gratia payments does not arise.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Shadow Secretary of State for Deregulation

How can it be that there is enough evidence to detain five people for many months, but not enough evidence to bring any case against them under the terrorism Acts or other criminal legislation? Were the detentions mistaken, or does our terrorism legislation miss some important points and need to be strengthened?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

There is a world of difference between the criteria adopted by the US Government to detain those individuals, most of whom were captured either near or at the face of terrorist action or training, and the evidence that British courts properly require to ensure detention following conviction, or even detention under part 4 of the 2001 Act.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

In 43 years of listening to ministerial statements, I have scarcely heard a senior Minister having to defend what is frankly indefensible. What does that say about the cavalier attitude of recent Republican Administrations in the United States to both human rights and international law? What are the Government going do about this situation: discussions about assassination squads, possibly operating across international borders, are really going on in Washington, and the presence of assassination squads has been made more likely by the appointment of Mr. Negroponte in Baghdad? Does the Foreign Secretary remember what we all said in the 1980s about Negroponte's behaviour in central America?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. With his long experience, the hon. Gentleman knows that he is trespassing outside the scope of the statement. He sought to table an urgent question, which was refused, and it is therefore unfair to attempt to raise the issue in a question to the Foreign Secretary now.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend back in his place after his absence. He must make his own judgment about the circumstances in which I am making this statement. In the 26 years in which I have been in this House, however, I have heard some statements that compare with the one that I have just made. [Laughter.] The US Government must defend their own decisions. However, we are allies of the United States, so I shall offer an explanation of why they have come to those decisions and put the matter in context.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with the issue of assassination squads in a slightly less well-publicised meeting than this—the cameras were not there and the journalists were outside. He said that we have seen no evidence whatsoever that the United States has employed assassination squads in Iraq, which we would not approve of. I happen to know—here I am defending as well as explaining—Ambassador John Negroponte, whom I regard as an international diplomat of the highest standing and integrity, and I am happy to defend that position against all comers.

J

Jack Straw knows full well that the US was being trained in the art of assassination squads by Israel back in December 2003, unless his intelligence briefings are as low-grade propaganda as the WMD dossier. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1102940,00.html http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/031215fa_fact For some reason, some vestige of honesty and connection with reality prevents Straw from lying with his own tongue, so instead he's chosen to quote someone else's words: "[Blair] said that we have seen no evidence whatsoever that the United States has employed assassination squads in Iraq." How convenient it is when the guy at the top is a complete...

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Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

The Foreign Secretary knows that many thousands of Commonwealth nationals are ordinarily resident in this country, where, to all intents and purposes, they enjoy the rights of British citizens, in as much as they can vote and join the armed forces, police and civil service. Is he aware of any such individuals who are still in detention in Guantanamo Bay, and if so, how many? Finally, he drew a distinction between two of the four detainees to be returned. Were some of the detainees engaged in activities that would have led to their being taken prisoner of war in a declared state of war?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

On the last point, the answer is for some, yes, and for some, no. The international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war—the Geneva conventions—were designed before we faced the threat of international terrorism and failing states, so the instruments have not quite caught up with the new reality.

On the number of people detained, let me say, as there is obviously some suspicion that British citizens might be detained elsewhere, that I am absolutely certain that none is detained in Guantanamo Bay, and I know of no citizens detained in similar circumstances elsewhere. However, I am happy to follow that up for the benefit of the House to ensure that if there is any difference between what I recollect and the truth, a written ministerial statement will quickly be made to the House.

There will be some Commonwealth citizens detained in Guantanamo Bay—including citizens of Pakistan, for example—as well as some people who have a right to indefinite residence in this country. I cannot, from this Dispatch Box, give an estimate of the numbers, but I can tell the House that one detainee who is a citizen of Australia was today released to the Australians by the United States Government.

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who is right to put the issue in context. He mentioned the work of the Attorney-General, and I am sure that many of us at this end of the building would like to commend the work of our right hon. and learned Friend in securing this result.

Will the Government continue to insist that unless the United States applies international legal standards, in terms of detention and trial, whenever it detains Britons, the Government will continue to insist that they must ultimately be returned to this country to be dealt with?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. His commendation of the indefatigable work of our right hon. and learned Friend Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, is entirely well placed, as he has pursued this matter tirelessly.

Our position is always clear, and it is based on the principle that where people are detained they should either be tried in accordance with internationally accepted standards of justice or released to the United Kingdom. That is a clear principle that applies to every British citizen wherever he is potentially detained.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I want to call everyone who is seeking to catch my eye, but there is other important business to come. I appeal to hon. Members to make their questions brief and to the Foreign Secretary to keep his answers brief.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

Following the Foreign Secretary's last answer, is it his case that the nine people detained in Guantanamo Bay were detained lawfully or unlawfully?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That is a matter finally to be sorted out before the United States Supreme Court.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

By any measure, this has been a hideous abuse of human rights and international law. In the context of the special relationship, if it has taken us three years to get our citizens, what hope does the Foreign Secretary have for those of other countries; and will he condemn what has happened in Guantanamo Bay?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My reaction is a little different—I am pleased that at long last we have managed to secure the release of the nine British detainees. We do not approve of the circumstances of their detention, but it is important that we understand why the United States Government felt it necessary to make the detentions.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Given that the Foreign Office rightly promotes democracy and human rights abroad all the time, what will the Foreign Secretary now do to ensure that in future nobody in Britain or among any of our democratic allies is held without charge or without conviction?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Our record on human rights is a very good one, and we will continue to pursue, with our close allies and everyone else in the international community, the need to ensure that all signatories to the human rights conventions apply them in practice as well as in theory.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

Is it not necessary to emphasise the fact that the real hero of the hour is the Attorney-General? He faced considerable personal public criticism last year when, after the US Government had made the offer that, once tried by some sort of tribunal, the men could serve their sentences here, he had the moral courage in the face of that criticism to say that those tribunals would not give men a fair trial, and that even on those terms he would not agree to their being tried unfairly. Is not he to be congratulated on that stand? Clearly, these men must now be investigated here.

May I just say, very quickly, that this surely shows two things—

J

Well done for a fine piece of toadying, Vera. Not much news comes out from Guantanamo Bay, no thanks to you, but reports from the first released victims claimed that there were repeated and prolonged interrogations by MI5, the UK intelligence agency. We can expect these victims to have been treated the same. http://www.guardian.co.uk/guantanamo/story/0,13743,1169147,0... The idea that they need...

Submitted by Julian Todd Continue reading

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I endorse my hon. and learned Friend's commendation.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Abuse of power by Governments to the detriment of individuals must surely carry a greater consequence than simple loss of face or damage to reputation. Pursuant to the points very wisely raised by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg and Keith Vaz, would not it send an invaluable signal if the Foreign Secretary, instead of simply saying, "If people come to us about compensation we will follow it up", he said, "There is no reason in principle why they should not receive compensation and every reason why they should"?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The answer is that compensation has to be a matter that is considered within United States and international law, not our own domestic law, so there is no point in my holding out hope that could then be dashed.

On representations, most of these individuals are already in touch with us through their lawyers and Members of Parliament, and I am sure that they all will be—by the end of the day, probably.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Would not it be useful for the British Government to say to the American authorities that those of us who are totally opposed to terrorism in all its forms and have the utmost sympathy and solidarity over 9/11 feel only contempt for the way in which detainees—not only the British ones—have been held in Guantanamo Bay, which is a perversion of justice in every form and plays right into the hands of the terrorist networks? Would not it be useful to be frank and forthright over this?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I think that the United States Government are very well aware of the strength of feeling across the United Kingdom and across this House. I believe that that is one of the factors that have led to the release of these men.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Bearing it in mind that there will be times in the future, as in the past, when it will be necessary for the greater safety of the greater number to detain people, should not we concentrate on the conditions of detention; and is not that the thing that we most deplore?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

We have to concentrate both on the circumstances and legality of detention, but certainly on the conditions of detention where it is lawful.

Photo of Roger Godsiff Roger Godsiff Labour, Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath

I welcome the fact that my constituent, Moazzam Begg, is now being returned to his family after three years of incarceration and that the Foreign Secretary says that due process of law will now prevail. However, mindful of the fact that the five detainees who previously came back have not been charged, if no charges are laid against the four people who are returning, including Mr. Begg, how will he find out what the basis of his detainment was; and how will he be able to clear his name, or will he for ever be viewed as a potential international terrorist?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend's question prompts in turn several questions that I cannot answer at the moment. Our process is, by definition, different from that of the United States: that is one of the reasons why we objected to the circumstances of the detentions. All I can say, as I have said repeatedly to the House and to my hon. Friend—I am grateful to him for his thanks—is that we will actively consider any representations that are made to us.