UK agrees to settle with ex-Guantanamo detainees

Associated Press – November 17, 2010

Britain’s agreement to pay hefty settlements to former Guantanamo detainees who accused the government of complicity in their torture averts a protracted legal battle that could have compromised national security and disclosed sensitive U.S. intelligence.

The agreement, which came after months of legal wrangling, was a first official step toward distancing Britain from the interrogation tactics sanctioned by President George W. Bush during the U.S.-led war on terror.

The payout could prompt other former detainees to push for compensation in U.S. courts and elsewhere — even though Britain admitted no guilt.

Justice Secretary Ken Clark did not disclose the size of the settlement or who was involved, saying in his announcement to parliament Tuesday there was a binding confidentiality clause.

However, a British lawyer with knowledge of the terms told The Associated Press that at least seven former detainees — all British citizens or residents — would receive payments and one man would receive more than $1.6 million (1 million pounds).

British spies were not accused of torturing detainees themselves, but former detainees alleged that British security services violated international law by knowing about the abuse and doing nothing to stop it.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Clarke said the government had not admitted any “culpability” in the settlement and the plaintiffs had not withdrawn their allegations.

“The alternative to any payments made would have been protracted and extremely expensive litigation,” Clarke said, adding that the government could not be certain it could “defend the security and intelligence agencies without compromising national security.”

Britain’s spy agencies welcomed the settlement, saying open testimony from secret agents could have jeopardized intelligence-gathering. In a joint statement, Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, and its overseas intelligence service, MI6, said the settlement would allow them “to concentrate on protecting national security.”

The settlement marks a further break by Britain with U.S. policies — both past and present.

“This is the first instance in which victims of the Bush administration’s rendition program have received government compensation of any kind,” said Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, a U.S.-based think tank.

“It underscores the merits of the victims’ claims and the lengths to which governments are willing to go to avoid judicial scrutiny and the airing of the truth relating to the CIA-driven rendition program,” she said.

Britain has long opposed some of the interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration during the campaign against terror after the 9/11 attacks, saying they can produce false information as suspects eventually say anything to make the abuse stop.

One of the most striking differences between the U.S. and Britain has been in the policy of extraordinary rendition, or sending terror suspects to third-party countries where they are interrogated — sometimes outside the bounds of international conventions.

U.S. courts have refused to allow cases involving so-called renditions to move forward for national security reasons. President Barack Obama said he would try to avoid sending terror suspects to countries with poor human rights records but would not rule out future renditions.

Testimony in the British cases might also have put a renewed spotlight on Bush-era interrogation tactics and forced Obama to take a tougher stance on holding Bush administration officials accountable for torture and abuse.

Although Obama has condemned the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, it remains open with some 174 detainees. Obama has been criticized for doing little to hold Bush administration officials accountable for torture or abuse.

In interviews last week, Bush strongly defended his approval of the use of certain “stress techniques” — which many have labeled torture under the Geneva Conventions — for interrogation of suspected terrorists, saying the methods yielded intelligence that saved lives.

Allegations of torture and abuse have been widespread among many Guantanamo detainees who were held in Afghanistan, Morocco and other countries before being sent to the U.S. prison camp in Cuba.

The most detailed account of abuse came in a court case involving former detainee Binyam Mohamed, who alleged that Britain was aware that the CIA sent him to be interrogated in Morocco, where his genitals were sliced with a scalpel.

Lawyers for Mohamed demanded intelligence transcripts to prove that Britain knew he was being abused and that any evidence U.S. officials had was tainted. A British court ruled last year that Mohamed was subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and ordered the documents released.

Under long-standing conventions, nations don’t disclose intelligence shared by their allies, and the court’s ruling drove a wedge between U.S. and British intelligence officials. It also raised questions on the sanctity of intelligence-sharing agreements if courts would be able to expose private exchanges in the future.

Previously, British diplomats and government officials had confirmed that negotiations were taking place with lawyers for 12 former detainees, all either British citizens or residents, who had begun legal action against the government.

The British settlements could reverberate in the U.S.

In September, a sharply divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited national security risks when it dismissed a lawsuit challenging a CIA program that flew terrorism suspects to secret prisons for interrogation. The complaint was filed by five suspects, including Mohamed.

Ben Wizner, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented the men, said he plans to petition the Supreme Court in December to reopen the case.

“The contrasts could not be clearer,” Wizner said. “Torture victims who have sought redress in U.S. courts have been turned away on dubious secrecy claims. Those same victims have sought redress in British courts and have received compensation and recognition.”

David Stringer in London and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.

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