David Blunkett and I were both in Washington the other day. He was there for bilateral discussions with General John Gordon, President Bush's adviser on counter-terrorism, and also to raise the issue of the Guantanamo detainees. I was there with the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission. We had brought Azmat Begg, Moazzam Begg's father; Rabiye Kurnaz, the mother of Murat Kurnaz, a detainee from Germany; and Aymen Sassi, from France, who hasn't heard from his brother Nizar for two years.
Also Terry Waite, who made helpful comparisons between his captivity in Beirut and what is happening in Guantanamo. He was arrested as an alleged spy, hooded, shackled and kept in solitary confinement for 1,763 days, denied any chance to prove his innocence. His captors were Hezbollah. Moazzam and 650 others are held by the US government. "You can't fight terrorism with the methods of terrorism," Waite said on the steps of the US Supreme Court.
I wished he'd been able to make those points to Blunkett, but he wouldn't meet us. A polite gentleman saw us instead, and explained the Home Secretary's concerns about Guantanamo, which seemed to be the same as ours. Except that we want the detainees to be repatriated, medically examined, seen by their families and then, if they are fit and if there is any evidence against them, to be tried in accordance with the law. Whereas he would prefer them to stand trial in America. Or so we gathered.
Waite's remarks, which he also made in London before we left, seem to have irked Washington. An unnamed senior US official made allegations against Moazzam Begg and others to the Daily Telegraph, which by coincidence - or was it? - were published on the same day we were all in Washington. "One of them," he told the Telegraph, "met Osama Bin Laden personally three times and volunteered to participate in suicide operations."
Whatever evidence there may be for that sort of allegation, it is unlikely to stand up in any country where the rule of law obtains: the unnamed official made it clear that it derives from confessions and from "allegations made by other detainees". The same sort of allegation was made against three young men from Tipton who have now been released. In an interview in the Observer, they described how their captors produced a video of Bin Laden with three shadowy figures behind him. In vain, one of them pointed out that the figures were bearded, which the three detainees were not, and that he personally had been working in a Currys electrical store at the time.
Later that day, Blunkett gave a lecture at Harvard. "We need to continue that crucial and necessary debate . . . about how to maintain that vital balance . . . in maintaining our democratic values, whilst protecting our democracy," he said. If among those democratic rights one includes the right to a fair trial, then the equation he makes is false. You cannot protect democracy by ditching the right to a fair trial, or substituting a less fair trial, such as a military tribunal.
Democracy is founded on the rule of law. It is enshrined in the US constitution and in our Bill of Rights. We are all, including Blunkett, bound by the rule of law. We are also protected by it.