They will be returned to their country. The move helps the U.S. smooth ties with a key ally.
LONDON — Easing a major irritant in relations between the United States and Britain, American officials agreed Thursday to release five of the nine British subjects held at the internment camp for suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made the announcement, which came after months of sensitive negotiations between the two allies.
The move comes as British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government continues to come under criticism from human rights groups and politicians within his Labor Party for participating in the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq even though feared weapons of mass destruction have never been found.
The release of at least some of the detainees will help the Blair government by removing one of the sources of public anger at the United States.
The Britons have been held at the U.S. prison camp for more than two years without charges and without access to their families or attorneys. Media coverage in Britain has been generally sympathetic to the detainees and has emphasized that they are in a legal “black hole” without recourse to normal due process.
Some of the nine men had never been to Afghanistan and were picked up in Pakistan and, in one case, even in Zambia, lawyers for their families said.
Straw said the five would return to Britain within “a few weeks.” He could not say whether any of them would be jailed after they arrived. Their cases will be reviewed by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, he said.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the releases follow Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s pledge last week to review each detainee’s case every year and release those who no longer posed a threat to the United States.
Nations accepting the prisoners must guarantee that they either will be held in their home countries or monitored to prevent them from posing a threat.
“These five were determined to be appropriate for transfer,” Di Rita said of the British detainees. “The British government has accepted that responsibility, and we’re going to transfer them at some point soon.”
U.S. officials have insisted that those detained at the Guantanamo facility are enemy combatants and terrorists engaged in war with the United States. But relatives of the Britons have argued that there is scant proof against the men and that, in some cases, they just have been swept up in roundups and have not been given a chance to prove their innocence.
Two Britons have been told that they might be subject to planned military tribunals for the Guantanamo detainees, and neither of them was among the five people to be released.
In what seemed to be an acknowledgment from the British government that those released were unlikely to be rearrested, Home Secretary David Blunkett said, “I think you will find that no one who is returned in the announcement today will actually be a threat to the security of the British people.”
Family members and human rights activists expressed happiness at the planned release but also said it was long overdue.
In New York, lawyers for two of the men, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, said at a news conference that they were pleased their clients finally would be released.
“What we are not pleased about is it took two years to do so with people who apparently had little or no value or usefulness to the United States,” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit litigation organization that represented both men.
If the U.S. had provided the legal process to which the prisoners were entitled under the Geneva Conventions or civil law, “it’s very likely these people would have been released almost immediately,” Ratner said.
Louise Christian, who represents the families of three of those detained, said British government officials were “breaking their promises” by not securing the transfer of all nine of the detainees to their jurisdiction.
In addition to Iqbal and Rasul, the men being released were identified by Straw as Rhuhel Ahmed, Tarek Dergoul and Jamal al-Harith.
In announcing the releases, Straw said that discussions were continuing with regard to the remaining four detainees, whom he identified as Feroz Abassi, Moazzam Begg, Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga. Abassi and Begg already have been identified as possible subjects for the planned military court.
“There are a range of security and other issues, which we and the Americans need to consider in respect of the four men,” he said. “But our position remains that the detainees should either be tried in accordance with international standards or they should be returned” to Britain.
In a related matter, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told his parliament Thursday that a Dane identified as Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane will soon be released from Guantanamo Bay, Associated Press reported.
Times staff writers John J. Goldman in New York and Esther Schrader in Washington, and Janet Stobart of The Times’ London Bureau, contributed to this report.