Race to prevent Algerian terror suspects' release
Jamie Doward, home affairs editor, The Observer, Sunday February 19, 2006
The government is conducting frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations to return a group of suspected terrorists to Algeria before a series of looming court cases that could see them released from prison.
The men constitute a 'credible threat' to national security, according to the government, which wants to deport them as a matter of urgency. But concerns from human rights groups means the men cannot be sent back until Foreign Office officials have secured a memorandum of understanding from the Algerian government that they will be treated fairly upon their return.
The men are now held in a number of high-security prisons in the UK but have not been charged because of legal concerns about how evidence against them was obtained by foreign interrogators.
With little prospect of being able to bring the men to trial, the government has instead opted to deport them. Memorandums of understanding have been signed with Jordan, Libya and Lebanon, who have pledged fair treatment to anyone deported from the UK. But there has been a failure to agree a similar understanding with Algeria.
The urgent discussions with the Algerian government are set to enter their sixth round. In a clear indication of the seriousness of the matter, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, visited Algeria last Thursday to hold talks with Algerian officials. It was the first visit to Algeria by a senior British politician for 23 years.
In March the Special Immigration Appeals Committee, the body charged with examining evidence against those detained under anti-terrorist legislation, will hear the case for releasing the men, believed to number around 10. The committee has already opted to release eight men held under anti-terror laws under strict control orders. The hearings are set to run until May.
A spokesman for the Home Office said the importance of establishing memorandums of understanding was highlighted by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, last December. 'The government has a responsibility to the British public to take action to reduce the threat from terrorism in the UK,' he said. 'As part of this we believe that international cooperation is necessary to both confront and defeat terrorism.'
A spokesman for the Algerian embassy in London, Rabah Toubal, said he believed a compromise could still be found, but whether this would be acceptable to human rights groups is unclear.
'Further discussions will follow,' Toubal said. 'We don't understand why our British counterparts are asking for more guarantees.'