Guantanamo: A child's plea - Let my father go

Mohamed, from London, is eight. He does not understand why his dad is being held at Guantanamo Bay, he just wants him home. Now there may be hope.

When eight-year-old Mohamed el-Banna gets home from school, he often draws his father standing inside a helicopter, calling his name. Last week, for the first time, Mohamed drew himself too, standing far below and shouting up, "Dad!"

Mohamed knows that his father, a London-based Palestinian businessman called Jamil el-Banna, is being held in the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison camp by some Americans. He does not understand or know why. He simply wants his father back home with them in north-west London.

His mother, Sabah Sunnoqrot, has just told him that a powerful American lady called Condoleezza Rice is visiting Britain. Dr Rice, the US Secretary of State, can help get his father released, she says, if she knows what Mohamed wants. His face crumples slightly.

"Please can you tell Dr Rice I want my dad back," he said, cradling his helicopter. "I miss him so much, and when he comes back, I will give him a big hug. And when he comes back, we will fly like a bird."

Mohamed's appeal is not as hopeless as it once was. For the first time, there are signs the Government is bowing to intensifying pressure to repatriate most of the eight remaining British residents held in Cuba as suspected al-Qa'ida supporters. The men - all with strong ties to the UK and many with close family who, like Mr el-Banna's five children, are British citizens - are still detained in Guantanamo Bay. Until now, the Government has insisted it was unable to help anyone without a British passport.

Then, 10 days ago, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, revealed that he was petitioning the US for the release of one man - Bisher al-Rawi, a close friend of Mr el-Banna, whose involvement with the Security Service, MI5, led to their arrest.

As The Independent on Sunday revealed last year, Mr al-Rawi, an Iraqi émigré, worked for MI5 as its intermediary with Abu Qatada, the Jordanian-born Islamist preacher alleged to be al-Qa'ida's "spiritual leader" in Europe, now awaiting trial in the UK for alleged terrorist activity. Mr el-Banna was arrested because he had once helped Mr al-Rawi ferry Abu Qatada's wife and children around London. The CIA and MI5 believed their fear of detention and torture would turn both men into key witnesses against Abu Qatada.

Mr Straw's letter has increased Mrs el-Banna's anxieties. Her husband and Mr el-Rawi were seized by the CIA and Gambian intelligence on 8 November 2002, after British intelligence tipped them off that the two men were travelling to the Gambia to start a peanut oil processing business. A third man, Mr el-Rawi's elder brother, Wahab, was also arrested but, as a British passport holder, was released.

Both men were flown to a CIA interrogation centre in the Afghan capital, Kabul, called the "dark prison", and then to Bagram airbase. The men allege they were repeatedly tortured, starved and abused. At Bagram, Mr el-Banna claims his captors threatened to rape his wife unless he accepted their demands to act as a witness against Abu Qatada.

Mrs el-Banna, 41, fears her husband could be left behind once Mr al-Rawi is released, and be sent back to Jordan to face torture as an alleged al-Qa'ida sympathiser. His fate and the Government's alleged complicity in his detention is the subject of a High Court judicial review, and two Parliamentary investigations.

Whitehall officials have told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Straw discussed the issue privately with Dr Rice during her tour of the Foreign Secretary's Blackburn constituency, which ended yesterday. Crucially, Mr Straw is in control of government policy on these men after a dramatic U-turn in Home Office attitudes.

Previously, the Home Office rejected every attempt to get official assurances that the men would be allowed back in the UK - even though they had legal residency or refugee status in the UK before their detention. Whitehall officials indicated last week that each man's status would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by the Foreign Office.

For the el-Banna children, hope that their father will be released dominates their lives. Mohamed's older brother Anas, 9, is the worst affected. His classmates have heard news bulletins talking about the detainees being tortured, and discuss it in the playground. "Anas came home from school very angry one day," his mother remembers. "He asked me, 'Mum, is that true what's happening to my dad? I hear one boy and that boy said people in Abu Ghraib and in Guantanamo, they're tortured and it is bad for them'.

"I said Anas, listen. I have received a letter from Jamil, where he said: 'I'm fine, and they've put me in another camp and now I wear white clothes, and there are people playing sport and football. He can pray, and have friends."

Mrs el-Banna recalls his teacher saying: "If anybody in class talks about any dad, like special times for dad, his tears come down from his eyes, very quietly, very silently ... He's keeping everything inside."

It is impossible, Mrs el-Banna explains, to shield her children. Instead, she has sketched out what happened to her husband and involved the children in campaigning for his release. All five of them wear T-shirts bearing his photo, proudly showing off their hand-drawn, brightly coloured posters.

For Mariam, 3, who was born six months after Mr el-Banna was abducted, the T-shirts are crucial. "She thinks any man who knocks at the door is her dad. This is why I put her dad's picture on the T-shirts... The first time she wore the T-shirt, she gave it a big hug, and she began to hug and hug, like 'I have found him'."

She has made strenuous efforts, she said, to teach the children not to hate their father's captors. "I don't want my children to grow up with feelings of anger or feelings of hatred. It's a dangerous disease."

She sits, in her spotless living room, surrounded by the "citizenship" awards won by her eldest four children for exemplary behaviour at school. The laminated certificates sit prominently arranged on the mantlepiece. Mohamed's citation, awarded in January, reads: "Always being kind to others and offering to help peers and teachers. Also for his positive attitude to do well in whatever he takes on." And last month, Anas won his award for: "His courage and perseverance to succeed."

pdf: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article355186.ece

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