LONDON — Britain's top attorney said Wednesday that the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had become a symbol of injustice and called for its closure.
"The historic tradition of the United States as a beacon of freedom, of liberty and of justice deserves the removal of this symbol," Atty. Gen. Peter Goldsmith said at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, an independent policy forum.
The comments from Goldsmith, who is chief legal advisor to the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, were the strongest criticism of the U.S. prison by a senior British official.
An estimated 490 prisoners are held at the Guantanamo camp, which opened in 2002 to house terrorism suspects rounded up during the war in Afghanistan. The Bush administration has designated them as "enemy combatants," a term international human rights advocates argue circumvents the Geneva Convention that protect prisoners of war. Only 10 detainees have been formally charged. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide in June whether the suspects can be tried by military tribunals.
Goldsmith said he was pleased to note that all nine British nationals imprisoned at the naval base had been returned home in 2004 and 2005, after government intervention.
The attorney general, who came under criticism for advising Blair that an invasion of Iraq could be justified under U.N. resolutions, said in his speech that there was a case for limiting some individual rights for collective security.
But, Goldsmith said, the right to a fair trial should never be compromised. He said the reliance on military tribunals at Guantanamo did not meet the British commitment to the principle of "a fair trial in accordance with international standards."
Goldsmith's bluntness was unexpected, given that Blair, a firm ally in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, has gone no further than to call Guantanamo an "anomaly."
President Bush, in a television interview Sunday, said that he would like to put an end to the detention center but that he was awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling.
The State Department later said that the United States would "like nothing better than at some point in the future to close down Guantanamo," but that "one thing we don't want to do is release people now who might at some point in the future end up … committing acts of terrorism against civilians."
Rights groups on Wednesday welcomed Goldsmith's remarks, though they remain critical of his support of the Blair government's proposed anti-terrorism legal reforms, which they say would whittle away civil rights.
Amnesty International's director in Britain, Kate Allen, said it remained to be seen whether Britain was prepared to pressure the U.S. to have the camp closed and to ensure the release or fair civilian trial of all prisoners.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, another rights group, called for guarantees that similar centers would not replace the Cuba base. "Some might say that these comments are too little too late. We say that it is never too late to do and say the right thing," she said in a statement.
"Nonetheless, the plugging of this 'legal black hole' will mean nothing if it is merely replaced by other secret Guantanamos all over the world."