Britain called Tuesday for the United States to release five British residents from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - a policy reversal that suggests new Prime Minister Gordon Brown is pursuing a tougher line on civil rights than his predecessor.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking that the five men be freed, the Foreign Office said.
The new call contrasts with Tony Blair's refusal for years to intervene in most Guantanamo cases. His government chose only to secure the release of nine British citizens and one resident who had provided help to British intelligence services.
It refused to intervene in the plight of British residents, saying as recently as March that it could not help people who were not citizens.
The men - Saudi citizen Shaker Aamer, Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, Libyan-born Omar Deghayes, Ethiopian national Binyam Mohamed and Algerian Abdennour Sameur - had all been granted refugee status, indefinite leave or exceptional leave to remain in Britain before they were detained, the statement said.
"Discussions with the U.S. government about the release and return of these five men may take some time," it said.
Blair had declined to press the United States on the issue, but because the U.S. has taken steps to reduce the numbers of detainees at Guantanamo, Miliband and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith have reviewed the government's approach, the Foreign Office said.
"We see this as a major change on the government's position. Prior to this, they were not calling for the release of the British residents," said Moazzam Begg, a Briton who was detained at Guantanamo Bay for two years before being released in 2005.
"It's taken us 5Ѕ years to get to this point," he said. "There are children that have never seen their fathers. There are parents who died while their children have been locked away. But finally there seems to be some light at the end of a very long tunnel."
Five Britons were freed in March 2004 and four in January 2005, including Begg, the Foreign Office said.
In January, el-Banna's 7-year old son, Anas, sent a letter to Blair, pleading for his father's release.
"Every night I think of my dad and I cry in a very low voice so that my mother doesn't hear, and I dream that he is coming home and gives me a big, big hug," he wrote.
Though many of his ministers called directly for Guantanamo to be shut, Blair said only that the prison camp was an "anomaly," refusing to press U.S. President George W. Bush to close down the facility.
"This change of policy is extremely welcome, especially if it signals a bigger change of approach on both sides of the Atlantic," James Welch, legal director of the civil rights group Liberty, said in a statement. "Surely the U.S. and U.K. governments need no further evidence that internment, kidnap and torture have been completely counterproductive in the struggle against terrorism."
Bisher al-Rawi, a 37-year-old Iraqi national and British resident, was released from the camp in April after five years in detention. But British officials only took up his case after it was disclosed he had assisted MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency.
Al-Rawi's U.S. lawyer, George Brent Mickum IV, said last year that al-Rawi had agreed to work for the British security service in exchange for his release. Nothing came of the offer, Mickum said.
The Foreign Office said there may be security considerations when the five men are returned to Britain, saying the government will "take all necessary measures to maintain national security." But it refused to say whether any of the men would be subject to control orders, a form of house arrest used in Britain to monitor terrorism suspects.
Brown's Downing Street office and the Foreign Office declined to confirm whether Brown had discussed the plan with Bush during their Camp David summit last week. Miliband met Rice for talks in Washington during the same visit.
Civil liberties campaigners claim another Guantanamo detainee, Algerian national Ahmed Belbacha, has previously been granted residency in Britain and should be included in the release request.
But the Foreign Office said their application applied only to those who legally sought residence in Britain. A government official, who demanded anonymity to discuss the case, said Belbacha entered Britain illegally and had not been granted asylum.
El-Banna was arrested with al-Rawi by Gambian authorities in November 2002 and transferred to U.S. detention, Amnesty International said. It said Deghayes and Aamer were captured in Pakistan in 2002.
Campaign group Reprieve claims Mohamed was held in Morocco for 18 months after being captured in April 2002 in Pakistan and later sent to Guantanamo. Amnesty International said the circumstances of Sameur's detention were not immediately clear.
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