Have we finally reached that small, rocky piece of political turf where Tony Blair stands up to George W. Bush and publicly says, "No more"? Britain hopes so. With Blair heading to Washington this week to address a joint meeting of Congress, a rare honor for a foreign leader, the entire British political establishment Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat united last week to pressure the Prime Minister into doing exactly that. The reason: the Pentagon's announcement that two Britons held for months at Camp Delta, the U.S. military prison for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, won't be returned to Britain for trial, despite repeated requests by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Instead, the two will soon face American military tribunals whose due-process standards are derided almost universally throughout Europe as shameful.
Among the shortcomings of the tribunals, which are designed to choke off any flow of useful information to al-Qaeda: judge and jury are replaced by panels of three to seven military officers; suspects are required to use a U.S. military lawyer; any private lawyer added to the defense team must be approved by the Pentagon, must be American, must have a "secret" security clearance and may not speak in public about the case without permission; defendants and their private lawyers can be excluded from the trial when secret evidence is presented; conferences between lawyer and client can be monitored; those found guilty (by two-thirds majority) will face an appeals panel whose members are appointed by the Secretary of Defense; and, contrary to European norms, they can be executed.
More than 200 M.P.s from all parties have signed a motion calling on the British inmates at Guantánamo to be sent home for trial. Others think the tribunals could be made to work, but only with a major overhaul. Says Michael Ancram, the Conservative shadow foreign secretary: "The defendants must have their rights respected. The charges they face must be clear, and they must have the right to proper representation." Matthias Kelly, chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, warned the U.S. not to "demean democracy by descending to the standards of those you are trying to defeat." Labour M.P. David Winnick, reflecting the widespread conviction that Bush owes Blair a favor in return for his loyalty during the Iraq war, caught the national mood at Prime Minister's question time: "Put your foot down, Prime Minister!"
None of this noise filters back to Camp Delta, where Moazzam Begg, 35, from Birmingham, and Feroz Abbasi, 23, from south London, spend their days in a kind of timeless limbo, residing in dorms 2.4 m by 2 m, in heat that often reaches 38°C, where they're permitted as little as 30 minutes, three times per week, for exercise.
As a teenager in London, Abassi was a good student who liked rollerblading and Michael Jackson. But he came into the orbit of radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, ultimately living at his mosque and setting up a militant Islamic website before allegedly going to Afghanistan for military training, where he was arrested by U.S. forces in December 2001. Begg left Birmingham in June 2001 to take his wife and four children to Afghanistan, where his parents believed he had established a school. Intelligence agents allegedly found his name on a money- transfer document from an al-Qaeda camp, and arrested him in Pakistan in February 2002, holding him in a windowless cell in Afghanistan until February 2003, when he was flown to Guantánamo. His family believes he was a victim of mistaken identity.
Like all the estimated 680 inmates from 42 countries, Abbasi and Begg have not been charged and are not permitted lawyers. One captive, Mustafa Idr, an Algerian-born Bosnian citizen, wrote his wife via the Red Cross on Sept. 13: "I have been at this place day by day without knowing why I am here, how long I am going to stay, and where I am going to go after this. I sit, eat, sleep and do nothing." The indefinite solitary confinement has prompted hunger strikes and 28 suicide attempts. The last time British intelligence agents flew in to question Abbasi, he stayed mum for over an hour though they couldn't say whether he was stonewalling or mentally disturbed. A mental health facility opened in March and now houses about 20 captives judged to be suicide risks, while some 125 other prisoners live in a medium-security compound, in dorm-like buildings of 10 men each.
American officials don't worry much about harsh conditions for terror suspects. They point out that the global threat posed by al-Qaeda is novel and particularly dangerous. They're confident lengthy detention without the chance to pass messages through lawyers can break up terror cells and prompt confessions. "We're getting a great deal of useful information," says Colonel Barry Johnson, spokesman for U.S. forces at Camp Delta. Antiterror officials in other countries say they're also glad of the gleanings from interrogations there. Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, head of France's counterterrorism and counterespionage service dst, told Time that "our American colleagues are telling us important things that they are hearing from suspects on Guantánamo," which are "significant in qualitative and quantitative terms" though he would give no examples.
But other U.S. and European officials deride the information from Camp Delta as mostly low-level and dated. One senior U.S. official with access to intelligence says he's not impressed with the quality of the interrogations. A Bologna investigator says despite the access given by the Americans, the detainees who used to live in Italy are refusing to talk until they're back. "We're blocked," he says. "We can't move forward with our investigations." There's also concern that the security-first, individual rights- second posture the U.S. is adopting at Guantánamo has snared innocent people who have no way in detention to prove their innocence three boys under 16 and some men over 70 have been held for over a year and is undercutting the stature of the U.S. to lead a global fight against terror.