TOKYO – The United States has agreed to suspend legal proceedings against British terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay (search) until U.S. and British officials have discussed their cases, Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said Friday.
The spokesman, briefing reporters accompanying Blair on a flight from Washington to Tokyo, said the White House was due to make a formal statement on the issue later Friday.
"There will be no further legal proceedings against the individuals concerned, pending discussions next week involving high-level legal teams in the U.S. led on the U.K. side by the attorney general when all aspects of the cases of the nine individuals concerned will be discussed," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
Maj. John Smith, a spokesman for the Pentagon office preparing for the military trials of terrorism suspects, said the office had not been notified Friday morning about any change in plans for the Britons.
Nine Britons are being held at Guantanamo Bay — two of whom are on an initial list of six detainees who could be tried by the military tribunal.
U.S. officials say the six were, like other prisoners at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba, suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda, Afghanistan's Taliban or some other group. The next step is for a prosecutor to draft charges against the men.
President Bush said Thursday at a joint news conference with Blair in Washington that the two leaders would discuss the fate of the two British citizens on the initial list.
Blair, who is under pressure from British lawmakers to win concessions from Bush on the military tribunal issue, arrived in Tokyo Friday for the first leg of a tour of Far East Asia.
The British government has said it would be unacceptable for Moazzam Begg (search), 35, and Feroz Abbasi (search), 23, to be denied a fair trial, and has said it has "strong reservations" about such a military tribunal.
Britain is opposed to the death penalty and the Blair government said it would raise the strongest possible objections to any chance of capital punishment being applied in the Britons' cases.
At a joint White House news conference Thursday, Bush responded to a reporter's question on the issue, saying, "the only thing we know for certain is that these are bad people and we look forward to working with the Blair government to deal with the issue."
When pressed that such an assertion would do little to assuage British concerns that the men should be viewed as innocent until proven guilty, the president responded, "Let me just say, these were illegal combatants. They were picked up off the battlefield aiding and abetting the Taliban."
Begg has been held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly five months, and was previously detained in Afghanistan for a year, according to the London-based Fair Trials Abroad. It said the father of four was seized in Pakistan in February 2002 and may have been the victim of mistaken identity.
Abbasi has been held at Guantanamo Bay for 18 months. His mother, who last saw him in December 2000, has described him as a computer student who could not have become involved in terrorism.
Abbasi's lawyer, Louise Christian, gave a cautious welcome to news the United States was suspending legal proceedings.
"Obviously it's a relief if they are not going to have to face trial in front of these completely unfair military commissions," she told Sky News TV.
"But it's not a relief if they are going to continue to be held incommunicado without access to a lawyer or to a court in these dreadful conditions."