Britain has agreed to pay millions of pounds in settlements to a group of former Guantanamo Bay detainees who were suing the government for alleged complicity in their torture overseas.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said details would be disclosed today in a written statement to parliament. It follows a series of talks aimed at avoiding a lengthy and expensive series of lawsuits that would have shone an unwelcome light on the activities of British spies.
Government officials declined to discuss the settlement in advance or confirm whether the government would pay compensation, saying that a confidentiality agreement was in place.
Britain’s ITV News reported that at least seven ex-detainees would receive payments, and claimed one man would be paid more than £1 million (Dh5.9m). It did not give its sources.
Diplomats and government officials previously had confirmed 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 said in July that mediation talks were under way, aimed at reaching a deal outside the courts.
British spies have not been accused of torturing detainees themselves, but the men alleged British officials were complicit in their mistreatment while they were held by the US, Pakistan and other countries, because they knew of abuse but did not stop it.
In the most notorious case, ex-detainee Binyam Mohamed alleged Britain was aware he was severely beaten, subjected to sleep deprivation and had his genitals sliced with a scalpel. A British court has ruled that Mr Mohamed was subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” by US authorities.
The British government has been anxious to deal with the lawsuits, estimating that court cases could last five years and cost up to £50m 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.
Mr Cameron was also concerned that the lawsuits could prompt new arguments over the handling of intelligence provided to Britain by the US and other allies. Earlier this year, a judge ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on the treatment of Mr Mohamed. Under long-standing conventions, nations do not disclose intelligence shared by their allies, and the White House reacted angrily to the release.
A payout to former terrorism suspects is likely to strain relations further. A human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands ,said that even if Britain makes no admission of guilt, “it does send out a very strong signal and it is going to cause difficulties with other countries, particularly the United States.”
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. It cannot begin until legal proceedings are concluded.
A retired judge, Peter Gibson, was appointed in July to lead the study and asked to begin his investigation once the lawsuits had been dealt with, and after police conclude criminal inquiries into the actions of two specific intelligence officers.
Police are investigating whether an officer with the domestic British spy agency MI5 was guilty of criminal wrongdoing over the alleged torture of an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee. In a separate case, the actions of an officer with the UK overseas intelligence service, MI6, are also being investigated.
Britain’s government and intelligence agencies have repeatedly denied they were involved in, or condoned, the use of torture. However, the British foreign secretary,William Hague, said in August that the government will overhaul current practices based on Mr Gibson’s recommendations. “We will act on the lessons learnt, and tackle the difficult issues we currently face head on,” he said.
Mr Hague said the inquiry was necessary to “clear the stain from our reputation as a country