Yemen terror case suspects "signed false confessions"

THE families of the five Britons held in Yemen on suspicion of terrorism claimed yesterday the men had been tortured and forced to sign false confessions.

Speaking at a press conference at Birmingham's Central Mosque, Rashad Yaqoob, a spokesman for the families, said they had been treated appallingly by the British government - which had not contacted them directly. Mr Yaqoob refused to name his source.

In a separate development it was revealed that Abu Hassan, the 28-year-old leader of the Islamic gang which abducted the group of 16 tourists in a desert ambush last month, is to go on trial today in a Yemeni court.

Relatives of the five prisoners warned of reprisals if the men were executed as details emerged of their links with Abu Hassan's gang, whose seizure of tourist left three Britons dead after a shoot-out with the Yemeni army.

The families claimed Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's calls for the men to be charged or released would be to blame if the men were killed and 'blood on the streets' would follow. Shahid Butt, aged 33, Malik Nassar Harhra, 26, Samad Ahmed, 21, all from Birmingham, Ghulam Hussein, 25, from Luton, and Mohsin Ghalain, 18, from London, were detained in Yemen last month.

Relatives called for Mr Cook's resignation.

The families have appointed Gareth Peirce - she successfully appealed the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four - who has instructed local lawyers to defend the five.

The families also denied that the men were members of the north London-based fundamentalist group Supporters of Sharia, which allegedly trains men in a military-style camp in preparation for Jihad.

However, it was confirmed that one of the men, Mohsin Ghalain, was the stepson of the iman of the mosque, the former Afghan war veteran Abu Hamza.

Mr Hamza is a militant cleric, whose group apparently organises military training from the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, and has called for the violent overthrow of the Yemeni government.

Another man arrested with the group who subsequently escaped from Yemeni authorities was named as Mohammed Mustapha, the 17-year-old son of Mr Hamza.

The Foreign Office strenuously denied allegations by the five men's families that it had not been giving them its support.

The British vice-consul in Yemen has visited the five British Muslims and confirmed that one man, Samad Ahmed, claimed he had been suspended by his legs and beaten on the soles of his feet. Another prisoner, Shahid Butt, claimed he was punched and blindfolded in the first week of his detention and forced to sign a statement.

Waquas Ahmed, brother of Samad, said that his brother was not a terrorist. 'I haven't heard of these organisations and I don't know anything about this,' he said.

The Government is taking advice on whether the length of time the men - who were arrested on December 24 - had been detained without being charged was within the law. The Yemeni constitution says that people may not be held for more than 24 hours without a court appearance.

* John Brooke, a British oil worker who was kidnapped by Yemeni tribesmen last Saturday, was permitted to make a telephone call to his company, which passed on a message to his wife in Britain that he loved her. The Foreign Office said it had no knowledge of reports that ransom negotiations were under way.