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U.S.: Father Of Guantanamo Detainee Pins Hopes On New Pressure Group

It's now two years since the U.S. began holding foreign terror suspects at its military base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Now a new group has been launched to push for the return of European detainees.

Prague, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Azmat Begg last spoke to his son in a phone call Moazzam made from the trunk of a car. Moazzam, from Birmingham in England, had just been arrested in Islamabad by two American officers.

"They bundled him up and put him in the boot of the car and drove him away in front of quite a few neighbors. I received a call, I don't know how he managed to call from the car, most probably from the boot of the car, that he's being taken away by two American and two Pakistani soldiers. So he told me to get in touch with his wife, who was in Islamabad, and take care of them and that he was being taken away to some unknown place," Begg said.
"Why can my son not be transferred to England, or have the same kind of rights? That's what I'm fighting for, that he should be allowed to come to Britain."

Moazzam's family say he went to Afghanistan in 2001 to set up a school with his wife. But they and their children moved to Pakistan once the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began that year.

Moazzam's father says he still has no idea what the allegations are against his son, who has since spent two years in American custody, first in Afghanistan and most recently at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He's one of nine British men among some 660 people held there as foreign terror suspects. Most were detained during the war in Afghanistan or for alleged ties to terror networks. The U.S. classifies them as enemy combatants and not prisoners of war, a status that gives them fewer rights and allows the U.S. to hold them without charge.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said the Guantanamo prisoners are being treated humanely. But Begg claims his son has been mistreated, and along with the families of other British detainees is pressing for their return to Britain to face trial at home.

And yesterday they, along with lawyers and campaigners, launched a new pressure group in a bid to secure the repatriation of all Guantanamo Bay's European detainees.

The Guantanamo Human Rights Commission is headed by brother and sister Corin and Vanessa Redgrave. She's the actress who has championed many causes including, most recently, Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev's battle against extradition from the U.K. to Russia to face terrorism charges.

Azmat Begg says the families want the same rights for their sons as those accorded to John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting alongside Afghanistan's ousted Taliban militia, who was put on trial in the U.S.:

"Why can my son not be transferred to England, or have the same kind of rights? That's what I'm fighting for, that he should be allowed to come to Britain. It doesn't matter if they put him behind bars, I wouldn't bother. He should be allowed to see his wife and lawyers, then he should be medically examined, then if he's all right of course he should be tried. If he's done anything wrong he should be punished, but if he hasn't done anything wrong, whey was he [in custody] for two years, which are equal to about 20 years of normal imprisonment?" Begg said.

The new group says it will send a delegation to the U.S. soon to push there for the men's repatriation.

But it has formed just as a deal on the men's removal from Guantanamo looks increasingly likely regardless. Earlier this month, unnamed U.S. officials said seven of the nine Britons held could be returned home if Britain "managed" them.

And British government ministers (Tony Blair, David Blunkett) have said a resolution is likely soon, one that would see the men either put on trial in the U.S. or sent home.

Stephen Jakobi heads an organization called Fair Trials Abroad and advises the European Parliament on the Guantanamo Bay controversy.

"I'm reasonably confidently expecting good news for European prisoners over the next week or two. I'm expecting a joint declaration not just between the U.S. and Britain. It would surprise me greatly if the other governments with interests -- such as the French, Belgians, the Swedes, etcetera, who have prisoners over there -- were not making simultaneous declarations. I think the Brits would determine the standard for all the European citizens and I would expect all the European citizens to return to their native countries," Jakobi said.

So why did the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission decide to launch now?

Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is a prominent figure in Britain's Muslim community involved in the new group. "Our feeling is that [the speculation the U.S. will soon release the seven Britons] are simply rumors not backed by some actions. This is what has motivated everybody to come together and launch this international campaign," Siddiqui said.