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Freedom for British resident after five years in Guantanamo

London Independent | April 1, 2007
Ian Griggs

At a house in New Malden, south-west London, the family of Bisher al-Rawi wait to welcome him home. For the past five years he has been held in Guantanamo Bay. To the US, he was an enemy combatant. To his family and friends, delighted as they are at his return, possibly as early as this weekend, his detention is a travesty of justice.

He was arrested during a business trip to Gambia in November 2002 because of his links to the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada.

Mr al-Rawi had travelled with his friend and business partner, Jamil el-Banna, to meet his older brother Wahab and help him to set up a mobile peanut-oil processing plant.

After his arrest, he was handed over to US agents, then flown to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantanamo. He has never been put on trial or faced any specific charges.

Jahida Sayyadi, Mr al-Rawi's mother, who campaigned for his release, said the conditions at Guantanamo amounted to a "shocking violation" of the established conventions on how prisoners are treated.

"We are obviously delighted Bisher is coming home but until he is actually back with us we don't want to say anything else," the family said this week in a statement issued through Mr al-Rawi's constituency MP, Liberal Democrat Edward Davey.

He said: "Everything I've learnt from his lawyers, UK government officials, journalists and even the US authorities, tells me Bisher al-Rawi is not and has never been a threat to national or international security."

Although British nationals held in Guantanamo Bay have already been returned to the UK, the Government has, until now, repeatedly refused to intervene in Mr al-Rawi's case because of his status as an Iraqi national with indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

His family fled Iraq nearly 20 years ago, after Mr al-Rawi's father was arrested and tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime.

The rest of the family applied for and were naturalised as British but Mr al-Rawi retained his Iraqi citizenship to keep ties with his home country.

On Thursday, Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, told Parliament in a written statement that Mr al-Rawi would be returned to the UK shortly.

"This decision follows extensive discussions to address the security implications of Mr al-Rawi's return," she added.

At a High Court hearing last year, a lawyer representing Mr al-Rawi said his client had been in contact with Abu Qatada with the "express approval and encouragement of British intelligence", to whom he supplied information about the cleric.

Shami Chakrabati, the director of Liberty, said that although it was good news Mr al-Rawi had been released, it was a "tragedy and a scandal" it had taken so long. She said any attempt to prevent Mr al-Rawi from speaking about his captivity would not stand up to scrutiny, although this might not stop the Government from trying.

"It's part of the dance [the Government does] with the US," she added. "We can't just welcome people back and say 'Sorry', we have to somehow legitimise their appalling treatment at the hands of one of our closest allies."

Mr al-Rawi is expected to make a statement on his return home calling for the release of his fellow captive, Mr el-Banna.

The expected release of Mr al-Rawi has prompted fresh calls for Mr el-Banna's release.

Sarah Teather, Mr el-Banna's MP, said: "Jamil el-Banna was picked up and taken to Guantanamo with Bisher al-Rawi, on the basis of the same flawed intelligence passed by the British security services.

"Both have been detained and tortured with no respect for international law. The British government now has a clear moral duty to intervene on behalf of Jamil.

"Although Jamil is a UK resident rather than citizen, his five children are all British citizens."

The Liberal Democrat member for Brent East, added: "Bisher's release demonstrates that British residency rather than citizenship is no barrier to the British government's involvement."

Zachary Katznelson of the campaigning group Reprieve, who has acted as counsel for Mr al-Rawi and visited him in Guantanamo, said his release made it clear that the Government had the power to successfully intervene on behalf of British residents.

He called for them to be released without further delay.

"They should do the same for all the other men, men like Jamil el-Banna, Bisher's best friend held on substantially the same allegations as Bisher, and Shaker Aamer, the father of four British children, who has been on hunger strike for 114 days."

Still held by the US

JAMIL EL-BANNA, Jordanian. Held since 2003. Granted refugee status in 2000. No charges.

BINYAM MOHAMED, Ethiopian. Held since 2004. Granted indefinite stay in UK in 1996. Charged with dirty bomb plot.

SHAKER AAMER, Saudi Arabian. Held since 2002 after arrest in Afghan-istan. Granted indefite stay in 1996. No charges.

OMAR DEGHAYES, Libyan. Held since 2002 after arrest on Pakistan. Granted permanent stay in 1980s. No charges.

AHMED ERRACHIDI, Moroccan. Held since 2002. Granted indefinite stay in 1985. No charges.

AHMED BELBACHA, Algerian. Held since 2002. Granted exceptional stay in 1999. Arrested in Pakistan. Accused of attending terrorist training camp but no charges.

ABDELNOUR SAMEUR, Algerian. Held since 2002. Granted refugee status in UK in 2000. Arrested on Pakistan/Afghan border. No charges to date.

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