LONDON – Britain has agreed to pay hefty settlements to former Guantanamo Bay detainees who sued the government for alleged complicity in their torture — one of the first big pay-outs stemming from the U.S.-led war on terror.
After months of legal wrangling, Britain's spy agencies chose to settle the lawsuit to avoid a series of pricey and prolonged court cases in which open testimony from secret agents could have jeopardized national security.
A British lawyer with knowledge of the settlement told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that at least seven former detainees would receive payments and one man would receive more than one million pounds ($1.6 million).
"The government has agreed a mediated settlement of the civil damages claims brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. The details of that settlement have been made subject to a legally binding confidentiality agreement," Justice Secretary Ken Clarke told the House of Commons on Tuesday, refusing to elaborate on any other details.
In a joint statement, Britain's domestic spy agency, MI5, and its overseas intelligence service, MI6, said the settlement would allow both agencies "to concentrate on protecting national security."
British spies have not been accused of torturing detainees themselves, but former detainees have alleged that British officials violated international law by knowing about the abuse and doing nothing to stop it.
In interviews last week, former U.S. President George Bush boasted that he authorized some techniques — which many have labeled torture under the Geneva Conventions — for the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and that the methods yielded intelligence that saved lives. Bush gave no specifics on plots that were thwarted.
Britain has long opposed some of the interrogation techniques that Bush administration officials authorized in the so-called war on terror after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Many government officials have said that such techniques can produce false information, as suspects eventually say anything to make the abuse stop.
Allegations of torture and abuse have been widespread among many Guantanamo detainees who were held in Afghanistan and other countries before being sent to the U.S. prison camp in Cuba.
But the most detailed account of abuse came from 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.
Before he was returned to Britain from the U.S. prison camp, lawyers for Mohamed sued in the British courts for intelligence transcripts to prove Britain knew he was being abused and that any evidence U.S. officials had was tainted.
A British court ruled that Mohamed was subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" by U.S. authorities and ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on the treatment of Mohamed.
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.
Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Martin Mubanga and Mohamed all sued in Britain's High Court, alleging that MI5 and MI6 knew of their alleged torture.
The payout now also raises the question of whether other detainees outside of Britain could look to the settlement as a way of pushing pending lawsuits forward even if the British government has made no admission of guilt.
U.S. courts have refused to allow cases involving so-called rendition to move forward for national security reasons. Rendition allows for terror suspects to be interrogated in third party countries — a process that President Obama said he would try to improve according to international laws but one that he would not rule out in the future.
"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. The developments in the U.K. throw into sharp contrast the United States government's attempts to shut down rendition litigation all together by invoking the state secrets privilege."
U.S. authorities have yet to officially recognize that extraordinary rendition was used for interrogations.
In the case of Mohamed, U.S. officials have consistently declined to confirm or deny that he or others were sent to Morocco for interrogation. U.S. authorities have also declined to comment on the use of Diego Garcia as a transit base or interrogation point for terror suspects. The Indian Ocean island is a British territory.
The settlement is thought to be one of the first bulk pay-outs to former Guantanamo detainees.
In a separate case, Canadian-Syrian engineer Maher Arar received an apology and $10 million (euro7.34 million; 6.25 million pounds) in compensation from the Canadian government after he was caught up in the "extraordinary rendition" of terrorist suspects.
Arar says he was mistaken for a terrorist when he was changing planes in New York on his way home to Canada, a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He was sent to Syria, where he claims he was tortured.
A Canadian inquiry cleared him of involvement in terrorism and concluded he had been tortured. But in June the U.S. Supreme Court quashed his bid to sue U.S. authorities over his treatment.
British diplomats and government officials had confirmed previously 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.
High Court judge Stephen Silber also said in July that mediation talks were under way.
Government officials had estimated that the court cases could last 5 years and cost up to 50 million pounds ($80 million) in legal fees. Officials said about 100 intelligence officials had already been removed from regular duties to work on preparing up to 500,000 documents to be used in court.
The settlement paves the way for a planned independent inquiry which is due to examine how much the government knew about the treatment of detainees by allies.
Retired judge Peter Gibson will lead the investigation after police conclude criminal inquiries into the actions of two specific intelligence officers.
Police are investigating whether an MI5 officer is guilty of criminal wrongdoing over the alleged torture of an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee. In a separate case, the actions of an MI6 officer are also being investigated.
A British government official who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity on Tuesday said both agencies are confident they will be vindicated in the investigations.
Britain's government and intelligence agencies have repeatedly denied they were involved in, or condoned, the use of torture.
David Stringer in London and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.