LONDON – Five Guantanamo Bay prisoners, including the last four British detainees and an Australian who allegedly knew of plans for the Sept. 11 attacks but was never charged, will be released within weeks by the United States, British and Australian officials said Tuesday.
The Pentagon later confirmed it was releasing four Britons and an Australian from Guantanamo, but it did not identify them.
The decision concerning the Britons follows months of negotiations between Washington and London and a direct appeal by Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) to President Bush.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) told the House of Commons that British authorities would take "every practical step ... to maintain national security and protect public safety" upon the men's return.
"Once they are back in the U.K., the police will consider whether to arrest them under the Terrorism Act 2000 for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activity. Any subsequent action will be a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service."
The Australian — 48-year-old Mamdouh Habib (search) — will be released without charge even though the United States believes he knew of the Sept. 11 attacks beforehand, Australia's attorney general said.
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that four British detainees and one Australian would be released based on their governments' "security assurances" about preventing the five from engaging in terrorism in the future. The Pentagon did not identify the five and said the timing of their releases was being discussed.
"These detainees are enemy combatants who had been detained by the United States in accordance with the laws of war and U.S. law," a Pentagon statement said. "The governments of the United Kingdom and Australia have accepted responsibility for these individuals and will work to prevent them from engaging in or otherwise supporting terrorist activities in the future."
Britain has sought for months to secure the returns of Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar. They are among 550 prisoners from 42 countries being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba after being detained during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Five other Britons, detained in Afghanistan late in 2001, were released from Guantanamo in March and were not charged with any offense upon their return to Britain. Four of them have filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court seeking $10 million each in damages.
Some legal experts doubt there will be enough evidence to try any of the returnees because information gleaned during interrogations at Guantanamo would be inadmissible in court.
Begg's father welcomed the prospect of his son's release.
"First thing, I would like him to be medically and mentally examined," Azmat Begg told GMTV television. "And if he has got charges against him, he should stand trial."
The British government spent months negotiating the men's release with U.S. officials and stated repeatedly that the proposed military tribunal that would consider the cases of Begg and Abbasi did not meet international standards of justice.
Begg, 36, moved to Afghanistan to set up a language school, according to his father, and was arrested in Islamabad by American and Pakistani troops in February 2002.
In an uncensored letter released to his legal team last year, Begg claimed he had been tortured while being held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan before his transfer to Guantanamo.
Abbasi, 23, who was born in Uganda and studied computer science in London, was detained at Kunduz, Afghanistan, in December 2001. He reportedly worshipped at the Finsbury Park mosque (search) — which has been linked to terror suspects, including convicted "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, an Al Qaeda member.
Mubanga is a former motorcycle courier from north London. It is unclear when or how he got to Afghanistan, but he fled the country and was arrested in Zambia by local authorities before being transferred to U.S. custody.
Belmar, 23, also from London, was reportedly held by Pakistani authorities before being moved to Guantanamo.
Habib, who was born in Egypt and was captured near the Pakistan-Afghan border, has been held at Guantanamo Bay for three years on suspicion of aiding Al Qaeda and alleges he was tortured while in custody. Australia Attorney General Philip Ruddock said it was unlikely Habib would be charged on his return.
"The United States government has now advised that it does not intend to bring charges against Mr. Habib," Ruddock said in Sydney. "In these circumstances, the government has requested Mr. Habib's repatriation to Australia (and) the United States has agreed to our request."
In a major setback to the Bush administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantanamo prisoners can challenge their detentions in federal court. Since then, 69 detainees have filed 19 cases challenging the legalities of their detentions as enemy combatants. Rulings are expected soon.
Australia has long resisted calls to bring Habib and fellow Australian terror suspect David Hicks (search) back to the country for trial, arguing that neither could be charged under Australian law in effect when they were captured in late 2001.
Australia has since strengthened its counterterrorism laws.
Hicks, 29, is charged with conspiring to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy and attempted murder by firing at U.S. or coalition forces while fighting for Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime in late 2001.
Ruddock said Hicks would face trial by a U.S. military commission in Cuba in early March.