A local paper takes on the Pentagon

Observations on Guantanamo

Local newspapers are sometimes mocked for their pedestrian agendas - all those planning wrangles and Rotary dinners - but a campaign under way by the Argus in Brighton is turning the stereotype on its head. It tackles a desperate, life-or-death issue and it is forcing politicians in London, and perhaps soon in Washington, to think again.

When Moazzam Begg and the three other Brits were released from Guantanamo Bay, many in Britain were relieved that the government had finally done what it could and got its own citizens home. What escaped the notice of many was that nine men from the UK are still there.

Omar Deghayes, a 36-year-old law graduate from Brighton, is one of those forgotten prisoners. He fled to Britain from Libya with his family in the 1980s after his father, a trade unionist, was killed by the Gadaffi regime. All were granted asylum.

He grew up, was educated and worked in this country, and understandably sees it as home. Unfortunately for him, he is not quite British enough. He doesn't hold a British passport, so our government refuses to help him. They say it is up to the Libyan government - the same regime that has threatened to kill him if he returns there.

Deghayes is now in the 11th week of a hunger strike that could kill him any day. His situation is desperate, which is why the Argus launched a campaign to secure him justice. We found out about his case last February and covered it intermittently from then, but when the hunger strike began in August, we felt we had to take urgent action.

When regional papers campaign, for obvious reasons they concentrate on overtly local issues - fighting hospital cuts or demanding council pooperscoops. To take up the case of a Muslim terror suspect is a pretty radical departure for a local rag.

But this case brings international human rights abuses and the disastrous nature of the war on terror to the doorsteps of Brighton residents. By confronting MPs, Charles Clarke and the Pentagon with the injustice being suffered by a local man and his family, The Argus is projecting Brighton news on to an international stage and vice versa. And the city has united behind the campaign, with councillors, religious leaders, students, trade unionists and pensioners all giving vocal support. Hundreds of people have turned out for demonstrations and the story is getting national and international media coverage.

Guantanamo Bay may be on the other side of the world but this campaign has made it a constituency issue for the Brighton Kemptown MP, Des Turner, who has raised it with immigration minister Tony McNulty - the man who, with Charles Clarke, must decide Deghayes's fate.

Real change could result. It is a gloomy fact that legal efforts have not got a single Guantanamo inmate out, but popular pressure has led to the release of more than 200. If successful, our campaign might cause some people to think again about what their local papers are for. Much more importantly, it might just save a man's life.

Miriam Wells is a reporter with the Argus

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