LONDON – The U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is a discredit to the American tradition of freedom and should close, Britain's attorney general said Wednesday, the strongest condemnation of the prison by a British government official.
"The existence of Guantanamo Bay remains unacceptable," Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said in a speech.
"It is time in my view that it should close. ... The historic tradition of the United States as a beacon of freedom, of liberty and of justice deserves the removal of this symbol."
Goldsmith's criticism was far stronger than that of Prime Minister Tony Blair whenever he is asked about Guantanamo, where about 500 terrorism suspects have been detained without charge or trial for as long as four years.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said "at some time in the future we would like nothing better" than to close the prison. But he said the United States does not want to release dangerous people prematurely only to have them resume attacks on U.S. and other personnel.
Blair has often said the prison is an anomaly that will eventually have to close, but he will go no further. He always prefaces his criticism by saying it is important to understand the threat America faces and the fact that many of those imprisoned were picked up on battlefields in Afghanistan.
Goldsmith, whose job is to advise the British government on legal matters, made no such qualifying comment.
"Not only would it in my personal opinion be right to close Guantanamo as a matter of principle, I believe it would also help to remove what has become a symbol to many -- right or wrong -- of injustice," he said.
Blair's office was aware of the planned speech earlier Wednesday. Asked about reports that Goldsmith would criticize the U.S. government over the camp, Blair's official spokesman said the prime minister believed there was a "genuine dilemma" because American officials believed many of the detainees were dangerous and could not be released.
Goldsmith, who met with American officials to discuss the fate of nine British citizens detained in Guantanamo, said Britain had not been able to accept U.S. proposals for military tribunals for the detainees. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide in June whether the tribunals are legal.
"There are certain principles on which there can be no compromise," Goldsmith said. "Fair trial is one of those, which is the reason we in the United Kingdom were unable to accept that the United States military tribunals proposed for those detained at Guantanamo Bay offered sufficient guarantees of fair trial in accordance with international standards."
He said he was pleased all the British detainees had been freed and returned home. The government has also intervened on behalf of an Iraq-born British resident still being held.
The Guantanamo camp, opened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, has prompted widespread international criticism. The United States says those detained are "enemy combatants" to whom normal legal rules do not apply.