Govt split on Guantanamo torture claim

By Ian Dunt and Matthew Champion

Downing Street and the Foreign Office appear to be at odds over their response to claims British security forces colluded in the torture of a British resident in Guantanamo Bay.

Two judges hearing the case about Binyam Mohamed were forced to keep certain sections of their summary secret after what they say are threats by the American government.

Former shadow home secretary David Davis announced the news this afternoon, setting off a frenzy of media activity.

The judges said that to publish all the details would entail a severance of UK-US intelligence sharing.

That threat was apparently repeated since Barack Obama’s inauguration, despite the new president signing executive orders announcing the closure of Guantanamo within a year and clarifying lawful interrogations.

“We have. been informed by counsel for the foreign secretary that the position has not changed. Our current understanding is therefore that the position remains the same even after the making of executive orders by President Obama on January 22nd 2009,” the judges said.

But a Downing Street statement this afternoon appeared to flatly contradict the Foreign Office position, with a spokesman saying they were “not aware” of any threats from the US government.

The judges said the information should be published “even though it’s politically embarrassing”.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called for Gordon Brown to immediately release all documents pertaining to the case.

“There is no other term for what the US intelligence services are doing than blackmail,” he said.

“It is simply incredible that the US government would have halted intelligence co-operation with the UK if this information had been made public.

“If British ministers were complicit in any way in the use of torture, or helped the US authorities to cover it up, they could face consequences in the International Criminal Court. The seriousness of these allegations cannot be overstated.”

Mr Mohamed, an Ethiopian national with British residency, has been at Guantanamo for the last five years.

He was first arrested over a visa violation while traveling in Pakistan in 2002 before being rendered to Morocco in a CIA plane and tortured for 18 months.

Later that year he was transferred to the secret ‘dark prison’ in Kabul and tortured until being moved to Guantanamo later in 2004.

The Foreign Office has previously told it was involved in active discussions with the US authorities to arrange the release of Mr Mohamed.

It has also consistently denied knowledge or complicity of or in his torture.

In their ruling, the two judges pleaded with Mr Obama to reconsider the “threats” of George Bush’s administration.

Acknowledging that the British government was “threatened” with reprisals if it disclosed Mr Mohamed’s torture at the hands of US agents, they said: “If the information in the redacted paragraphs which we consider so important to the rule of law, free speech and democratic accountability is to be put into the public domain, it must now be for the United States government to consider changing its position or itself putting that information into the public domain.”

Forty-two separate British intelligence services reportedly demonstrate awareness of Mr Mohamed’s torture.

He has consistently claimed he was tortured by American agents – claims denied by the Pentagon – and accused the British authorities of complicity after being questioned about his life in London.

UK human rights groups are demanding the British government responds to the claims and the Obama administration drops the threats of its predecessor.

“The US is under a legal duty to investigate the crime of torture, not to suppress evidence that it happened,” said Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve.

“And the UK has a similar duty. For the foreign secretary to give in to these illegal demands by the Bush administration is capitulation to blackmail, pure and simple. It is hardly Britain’s finest hour.

“As the judges say, it is up to President Obama to put his money where his mouth is. He must repudiate his predecessor’s reprehensible policy.”

Clare Algar, the executive director of the human rights group, said: “Binyam was tortured horribly in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan and it is clear from this case that the British security services were complicit in that torture.

“Today’s judgment notes the British government has a duty to investigate and possibly prosecute the perpetrators. Unfortunately, it seems that this might be the only way of exposing the shadowy facts about kidnap and torture which the US continues to hide beneath the false front of national security.”

Lawyer Cori Crider added: “Secretive and lawless to the last, one of the final acts of the Bush administration was to try to bully its closest ally into sweeping Binyam Mohamed’s torture under the rug. This is repugnant to the principles of open justice on which both our societies were founded.

“On day one of his administration, President Obama declared his government would ‘operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government’. If this does not apply in the case of Mr. Mohamed’s torture, where does it apply?”

Liberty said it found claims that the Obama administration had renewed threats to reconsider intelligence-sharing if the torture allegations were released “surprising and alarming”.

“There is no moral or practical argument against an immediate public inquiry into Britain’s role in rendition and torture. A wise minister would establish an inquiry tomorrow rather than risk being dragged there by the courts,” said Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti.

The partial ruling comes as MEPs across the party political spectrum joined together to overwhelming pass a resolution calling on EU governments to be prepared to resettle Guantanamo Bay detainees.