Three British residents freed from Guantanamo

Other News Materials 19 December 2007 22:12 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - Three British residents held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for suspected terrorists have been freed and are due to return to Britain on Wednesday after more than four years in captivity.

Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, 45, Libyan Omar Deghayes, 37, and Algerian Abdennour Sameur, 33, were due to arrive at an airport north of London accompanied by a doctor and under escort by counter-terrorism police, their lawyers said.

Their release follows years of campaigning by their families for their freedom and pressure by the British government over the last four months to convince the U.S. administration that there are no grounds to hold them.

"I congratulate the Brown government on securing our prisoners' release," said Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of Reprieve, a legal charity defending them, referring to the government of Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"These are people who have gone through shocking, shocking abuse," he said. Lawyers for Deghayes say he was blinded in one eye as a result of being beaten while in U.S. custody. U.S. authorities have not commented on his condition.

Smith said he expected the three men to be held briefly for questioning by British police before being released to their families. "The abuse they have suffered, and almost six years' detention without trial, is enough," he said.

Deghayes and Sameur were seized in Pakistan following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, although specifics of exactly why and when they were detained are not clear. Banna was arrested at an airport in Gambia, west Africa, in November 2002.

Banna's wife Sabah, who was pregnant with his fifth child when he was seized, issued a statement expressing her relief.

"It has been a very difficult time but thank God it is now finished and we have justice at last," she said. "I feel so blessed that my Jamil will be home to celebrate with my children."

While the United States has described the men as dangerous, the British government has declined to say what security or surveillance measures it may impose on them after their return.

Asked if the men would be subject to control orders, a form of house arrest, Smith said he did not think that would be the case, saying such a move would be "profoundly wrong and unwise."

"We don't believe that any of these men are a danger to the British public," said Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer with Reprieve. "I think if the British government really thought they were a danger, they wouldn't be bringing them back."

Having previously refused to seek the release of non-British nationals, the government changed its stance in August and asked Washington to free five British residents held at Guantanamo.

Earlier this month, the United States agreed to free el-Banna, Deghayes and Sameur, but rejected a plea on behalf of another man, and is still in talks over the fifth.

Washington did not say why it had decided to comply with Britain's request, but has come under fierce international criticism for its detention policies at Guantanamo.

Britain's Home Office confirmed the release of the detainees, but said their return to Britain did not necessarily mean they would remain in the country.

"(This) does not imply commitment on our part that they can remain permanently in the United Kingdom. Their immigration status will now be reviewed," a spokeswoman said.