Northern Ireland: doctor leads medics' condemnation of government over Guantanamo Bay

Human rights group says Government must intervene in case of eight UK residents held at Guantánamo Bay

Amnesty International today (18 September) called for the UK government to act over 'forgotten' prisoners from the UK held at the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The call came after the publication today of a new letter - signed by more than 100 medical health professionals led by a Northern Ireland doctor - condemning the government for its failure to seek independent medical examinations for eight UK residents held at Guantánamo Bay.

The letter, published today in The Times newspaper and signed by over 100 doctors in the UK, specifically singles out the Foreign Office for criticism in refusing to respond to a BMA request to send UK doctors to assess the medical needs of the men at Guantánamo.

It also makes damning remarks about the failure of the Foreign Office's own medical panel to even discuss the plight of the detainees. Signatories to the letter include Dr Charles Clarke (himself a member of the Foreign Office's pro bono medical panel), as well as Dr William Hopkins (Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture), Dr Adnan Siddiqui (CAGE Prisoners) and Dr Ihtesham Sabri (Muslim Doctors Association).

Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist from Belfast now working in Birmingham, coordinated The Times letter. He said:

"Many doctors I speak to every day are outraged by the government's heartless attitude to these eight Guantánamo prisoners.

"They simply can't accept that men trapped at Guantánamo should be denied independent medical assistance because the government is hair-splitting about 'nationality' versus 'residency' status. The case is straightforward: these men are vulnerable and they need to be examined by a team of independent physicians."

None of the eight UK residents held at Guantánamo has ever been independently examined, despite longstanding concerns about the physical and mental impact of long-term incarceration without charge or trial at the camp. One of the detained UK residents - Omar Deghayes - is believed to have been blinded in one eye after Guantánamo guards reportedly forced a finger into his eye while repeatedly pepper-spraying him in the face.

There are also concerns for the mental health of some of the Guantánamo prisoners, concerns that were heightened after three detainees died - apparently from self-inflicted injuries - in June.

Amnesty International's Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said:

"The government should be ashamed of itself that in four and a half years it has not insisted on independent medical examinations for long-term residents of the UK held in the legal black hole of Guantánamo.

"These men are Guantánamo's forgotten prisoners. Some of them are refugees to Britain, yet they have been left to rot in Guantánamo's cells."

There are believed to be at least eight UK residents currently held at Guantánamo (nine British nationals having previously been released). Besides Omar Deghayes, these are: Binyam Mohamed, Shaker Aamer, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Ahmed Errachidi, Ahmed Belbacha and Abdennour Sameur.

Using the argument that they are UK residents and not UK nationals, the UK government is currently refusing to offer any formal legal or medical help to the men - with the exception of Bisher al-Rawi, who has apparently been accorded a separate status by the UK government because of his supposed links to the UK intelligence services.

Approximately 450 prisoners of some 35 nationalities are being held at the prison camp and most have not been charged with an offence. Though some detainees have now been held for four and a half years, no-one has yet received a proper trial.

Former Guantánamo prisoner, Moazzam Begg, will give this year's Amnesty International Annual Lecture in Belfast on Saturday 4 November, as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's. The event is staged in association with the Human Rights Centre at Queen's.

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