By Karen DeYoung and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 27, 2009
The British government, after years of denying it had any role in the U.S. policy of "extraordinary rendition," acknowledged yesterday that two prisoners its military forces turned over to U.S. custody in Iraq five years ago were subsequently sent to a U.S. prison in Afghanistan.
In a statement to Parliament, Defense Secretary John Hutton apologized for what he said was "inaccurate information . . . given to the House by my department" on previous occasions. The transfer, he said, was unknown to his predecessor and came to his attention only in December during an internal investigation in response to parliamentary questions.
Hutton said that the rendition involving two Pakistani men, who have been in custody at Bagram air base in Afghanistan since 2004, violated a U.S.-British memorandum of understanding specifying that "no person captured with assistance" from British forces "will be removed from the territory of Iraq without prior consultation."
The Pentagon quickly took responsibility for the lapse. "There was a level of formal coordination that should have taken place with respect to a transfer of this nature," spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "Unfortunately, that did not occur in this case. It was an error."
Revelations about the previously unknown renditions brought immediate criticism in Britain from political opposition and human rights groups and are likely to complicate the Obama administration's efforts to persuade European and other governments to accept prisoners released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Obama last month issued an executive order to close the Guantanamo facility within a year and began a case-by-case review of all 245 prisoners there. But concerns have been raised in this country and abroad that similar reviews and rights have not been accorded prisoners detained at Bagram -- where the United States maintains a large prison and is currently building a massive new facility -- and that some Guantanamo detainees may be transferred there.
About 650 prisoners are currently being held at Bagram, at least 20 of whom -- including the two Pakistanis -- are believed to be non-Afghans captured outside the Afghan war zone.
Last week, the administration, in a one-paragraph filing in U.S. District Court in Washington, said it would continue the Bush administration's policy of not granting to Bagram detainees the rights that Guantanamo prisoners won in federal courts to challenge their confinement.
Guantanamo detainees won habeas corpus rights in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June, but its provisions were limited to those held in Cuba. At a hearing before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates held shortly before Obama's inauguration, four Bagram detainees argued that they should have the same rights as those held in Guantanamo. A Justice Department attorney argued that they did not have the right to challenge their confinement because they were "unlawful enemy combatants" being held in a war zone "half a world away."
Bates said it was "anomalous" for the government to say that those it "chooses to send to Guantanamo have habeas rights, but those who the government chooses to send to Bagram don't have habeas rights." His ruling is still pending, but shortly after Obama took office, Bates asked the government if it wanted to "refine" its position. In its reply Friday, the Justice Department said that it "adheres to its previously articulated position."
The two Pakistanis in the British announcement were not named. Hutton's statement said he was told by the United States that the two were members of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistani extremist group with ties to al-Qaeda. It also said that "the U.S. government has explained to us that they were moved to Afghanistan because of a lack of relevant linguists necessary to interrogate them effectively in Iraq."
"We have been assured," Hutton said, "that the detainees are held in a humane, safe and secure environment meeting international standards" and that the International Committee of the Red Cross has had regular access to them.
Correspondent Kevin Sullivan in London and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.