In a reversal, Britain's new government has asked the White House to free five former British residents who've been held for years as terrorism suspects at the remote U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Among them: Ethiopian exile Binyam Mohammed, 29, who two years ago was charged as an al Qaida co-conspirator in the Bush administration's first effort to hold war crimes tribunals at Guantanamo and who claims that the U.S. outsourced his interrogation to torturers in Morocco.
Britain's Foreign Office made the repatriation request Tuesday in a letter from Foreign Secretary David Miliband to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The British Embassy in Washington wouldn't offer a timetable for when a deal might be sealed.
"We've said for quite a while now that we see Guantanamo Bay as an anomaly and that it should be closed,'' said Steve Atkins, an embassy spokesman. "It's going to take an international effort to close Guantanamo, and we're willing to do our part.''
None of the five men is a British subject, but all were legal residents of the United Kingdom at the time of their capture. Their residency expired, however, because of their absence from Britain while they were being held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo, and the British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair had declined to seek their release.
In a letter to attorneys for the five men, a British Foreign Office official, Paul Welsh, said the government, now led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, had decided to seek their release now to help the U.S. lower the population at Guantanamo.
In Washington, Defense Department spokesmen declined to say whether the request would fit into an ongoing military assessment of the threat and intelligence value of Guantanamo detainees, a process that's been reducing the prison camp's population.
Guantanamo's population is predominantly from Arab and south Asian countries and Bush administration officials have complained that they haven't been able to get some countries to accept prisoners that the military has determined can be released.
In April, the U.S. turned over to Britain an Iraqi citizen, Bisher al Rawi, 37, who'd once been a British resident after disclosures that he'd been an informant for MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency.
Mohammed was among 10 men charged as al Qaida co-conspirators in the Bush administration's first effort to stage war-crimes trials. The Supreme Court ruled that effort unconstitutional, however, and the Pentagon hasn't recharged him under Congress' Military Commissions Act, which was passed to overcome the high court's objections.
Mohammed, who lived in London for seven years after fleeing his country, says he never joined al Qaida and was in Pakistan on a religious journey to shake a drug habit when he was seized and sent to Morocco for interrogation. In an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court, Mohammed said he'd confessed only after interrogators had sliced his genitals with a scalpel.
Besides Mohammed, the British government is seeking the release of Shaker Aamer, 36, a Saudi citizen who moved to Britain in 1996 and married a British woman; Jamil el-Banna, 55, a Jordanian citizen and British resident since 1994 who was captured in Gambia and sent to Guantanamo with Rawi; Omar Deghayes, 38, a Libyan exile who studied law in London after his family fled the Moammar Gadhafi regime; and Abdennour Sameur, 34, an Algerian who fled his homeland and got asylum in England in 2000.
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)