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Britain to compensate former Guantanamo Bay detainees alleging abuse

By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:21 AM

LONDON - The British government will pay millions of dollars to 15 former Guantanamo Bay detainees, and a current one, who accused the country's security services of collusion in torture and unlawful imprisonment, an extraordinary settlement that officials here insisted was not an admission of guilt.

Security agencies in Britain have repeatedly insisted they were not complicit in alleged acts of torture against the prisoners, all of whom are British citizens or residents. Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, told Parliament that the settlement was meant to avoid years of costly litigation to defend security agents.

"The alternative to any payments made would have been protracted and extremely expensive litigation in an uncertain legal environment in which the government could not be certain that it would be able to defend . . . security and intelligence agencies without compromising national security," Clarke said.

The settlement represents the first time any Guantanamo Bay detainee, of 779 who have passed through or are still held at the military prison in Cuba, has received a financial settlement because of his incarceration. And the payments are all the more significant because they are being made by the closest military and security partner of the United States. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the federal courts, have rejected the idea of compensation.

A White House spokesman said the administration would have no comment on the British decision.

Most of the British detainees were picked up in Afghanistan or Pakistan in the months after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In some cases, they were interviewed by British agents before they were transferred to Guantanamo. Three of the men were picked up in Africa - two in Gambia and the other in Zambia.

The detainees were pursuing a high-profile court suit against the government related to their imprisonment and treatment at Guantanamo, as well as other detention centers in Pakistan and Morocco. They include the "Tipton Three" - Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - who were returned to Britain from Guantanamo in March 2004 and who alleged abuse, including severe beatings, being chained to the floor for extended periods and prolonged periods of isolation.

A British government source said the case was settled because of a "very unhealthy legal atmosphere" that left in doubt whether the agents would be hauled into courtrooms and classified documents would be called on as evidence.

A number of former Guantanamo detainees have tried to sue in the United States. The courts have dismissed every case on the grounds that the government agencies and officials named have immunity from such civil lawsuits.

Former detainees who were held by the United States in the prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Bagram air base in Afghanistan have also unsuccessfully sued in U.S. courts, as have several of the alleged victims of the CIA's program of transferring terrorism suspects to third countries for interrogation.

The Bush and Obama administrations have also invoked the "state secrets" privilege to end a number of lawsuits that charged that various government and private entities were complicit in torture.

Previous settlements

The British action follows earlier decisions by the Canadian and Swedish governments to compensate citizens or residents who were transferred to third countries by the CIA for interrogation.

The commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police apologized to Maher Arar, a Syrian native with Canadian citizenship who was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York and transferred to Syria, where he was held for a year before being returned to Canada. Arar was also given $10 million in compensation by the Canadian government. Sweden compensated two Egyptian residents who were turned over to the CIA in 2001 and transferred to Egypt, where they said they were tortured.

"The Obama administration continues to shield Bush-era torturers from accountability in civil proceedings by blocking judicial review of their illegal behavior," said Steven Watt, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "To date, not a single victim of the Bush administration's torture program has had his day in a U.S. court. The U.S. can no longer stand silently by as other nations reckon with their own agents' complicity in the torture program."

Others in the United States criticized the British government's decision.

"This is nothing more than appeasement through payment," said Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, which was attacked in Yemen by al-Qaeda in 2000. Lippold is a critic of the Obama administration's ambition to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. "It is unfortunate that the British government has chosen to surrender to the demands of terrorists and compromise their nation's, and our nation's, security. Terrorists today have to be celebrating."

But another former U.S. military officer praised the British action. "Without getting into whether they are good guys or bad guys, there is a global obligation that we don't condone torture, and the U.S. has done everything to avoid its duty under domestic and international law to prevent and atone for torture," said retired Air Force Col. Morris D. Davis, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, who resigned in 2007 after alleging political interference in the military's legal process. "It's heartening to see the British do their part."

The details of the British agreement are confidential, and both sides have agreed not to reveal the financial sum paid out. According to British press reports, Binyam Mohamed, a detainee who claimed he was tortured and questioned with queries supplied by British intelligence, could receive up to $1.6 million. Government sources dismissed such figures as "guesses," refusing to confirm or deny amounts. Mohamed said that after his arrest in Pakistan he was transferred by the CIA to Morocco, where he said he was tortured, including having his genitals slashed with a razor.

Still at Guantanamo

One of the 16 to be awarded compensation is still in Guantanamo. Saudi-born Shaker Aamer had not yet brought action against the British government but was expected to upon his eventual release from Guantanamo. The government preempted this, officials said, by agreeing with his attorneys on a financial settlement. Officials said his release from Guantanamo was not part of the settlement, though they said they continued to negotiate with the United States for his release.

Aamer is married to a British woman and has four children in Britain. An interagency task force set up by President Obama that reviewed the files of all Guantanamo detainees recommended that Aamer not be released. He previously rejected an offer to be repatriated to Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the cost of litigation, the British government was concerned about intelligence officers being "paralyzed by paperwork" that the cases would require. Legal sources suggested the detainees' legal action would have taken three to five years at a cost of around $16 million a year.

But the British are still investigating the country's role in alleged acts of torture in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Prime Minister David Cameron announced the inquiry in July, saying it would address claims alleging abuse sanctioned by agents of Britain's major intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6. Cameron said that inquiry would move forward only after the detainees' cases had been resolved.

Karen Adams, a lawyer representing Binyam Mohamed, said that while the government had not admitted guilt, the decision to settle was significant.

"The fact that they have agreed to compensation is quite significant," she said. "A settlement brings the case to a close, but that does not mean that the matter is closed. It is the first step in a broader struggle for accountability and justice.

"I hope that the U.S. government will take note of what has happened here in the U.K. It is a positive step. In the U.S., unfortunately, everything has been kept completely secret and the government has not compensated anyone."

Omonira-Oyekanmi is a special correspondent. Finn reported from Washington. Staff writer Anthony Faiola in London and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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