Britain asks U.S. to free 5 at Gitmo - Call is policy change for prime minister
By Tom Hundley
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 8, 2007
LONDON - In a significant policy shift for the British government, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked the United States to release five British residents imprisoned at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The request came in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
"The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have decided to request the release from Guantanamo Bay and return to the U.K. of the five men who, whilst not [United Kingdom] nationals, were legally resident here prior to their detention," a statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said on Tuesday.
The government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair sought and obtained the release of nine British nationals from Guantanamo Bay but it said it had no responsibility to intervene on behalf of noncitizens who lived in Britain.
Some analysts here saw Tuesday's policy shift as an attempt by Brown to pursue a tougher stance toward the United States in line with Britain's long-standing opposition to the Guantanamo Bay camp. But the move is likely to be welcomed by the Bush administration, which is eager to downsize Guantanamo Bayand has been critical of nations, including Britain, that have chastised the U.S. for alleged human-rights violations at the facility while refusing to accept the repatriation of prisoners.
"Britain is taking these people off America's hands. That's not something America is going to complain about," said Robin Shepherd, a political analyst with Chatham House, a London think tank.
In Washington, the State Department said the request was being reviewed.
"Our policy has been for quite some time to work with countries who have an interest in either having their nationals returned or taking responsibility for third-country nationals," spokesman Sean McCormack said.
But the policy shift does have domestic political significance in Britain. Blair was widely perceived to be too acquiescent to Bush on matters related to Iraq and terrorism, and Brown appears to be looking for ways to differentiate himself from his predecessor without damaging Britain's special relationship with the United States.
"Brown's public-relations strategy on this is brilliantly constructed," Shepherd said. "It's a low-cost approach in terms of political damage to the relationship with the U.S. but it yields high returns in terms of his image in Britain."
The new British prime minister met with Bush last week at Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
Brown's hand may have been forced by a decision from Britain's High Court last month ordering a judicial review of the government's failure to decide whether one of the five prisoners, Jamil el-Banna, would be allowed to return to London where his wife and five children, all British nationals, live. The court set a Thursday deadline for the Home Office to make up its mind.
"The Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary have reviewed the government's approach to this group of individuals in light of these ongoing developments, our long-held policy aim of securing the closure of Guantanamo Bay and the need to maintain national security," the Foreign Office said in the statement. "They have decided to request the release and return of the five detainees who have links to the U.K. as former residents."
The four other detainees are Shakar Aamer of Saudi Arabia, Omar Deghayes of Libya, Binyam Mohamed of Ethiopia and Abdennour Sameur of Algeria.