LONDON // Britain's intelligence relationship with the United States is under increasing strain as a result of revelations from the High Court that agents from MI5, the British security service, colluded in the illegal interrogation of a terror suspect held by the Americans.
The terror suspect, Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian resident of Britain, claims he was pressured into making a false confession after being subject to torture. He said he was bombarded with loud music 24 hours a day and had his genitals cut with a razor. All forms of torture are illegal in Britain, and as recently as last month a government spokesman insisted that the security and intelligence services "do not solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment".
But a strongly worded judgment from the High Court said the British security service played a full role in the interrogation of Mohammed in Pakistan, and was not a mere "bystander". The court said an MI5 agent interviewed Mohammed when he was being detained by US forces in Karachi. After he was subjected to "rendition" to another country - thought to be Morocco - MI5 sent questions to the United States to put to him.
The High Court said the collusion of MI5 in the interrogation was illegal, as his detention incommunicado was not lawful under Pakistan law. It ruled that Mohammed had an arguable case of being subject to torture, and it ordered the British government to release to his lawyers all documents on the case so that he could defend himself. He is accused of planning to set off a "dirty bomb" containing radioactive material in the United States. He faces trial by military commission in Guantanamo Bay, where he has been since 2004, and could face the death penalty.
The court's preliminary judgment was issued on Thursday. A second hearing this week will decide which documents should be handed over to Mohammed's defence team. The British government has been at odds with Washington for the past year over the Mohammed case. Even though he has never become a UK citizen, he has the right to live in Britain and London has asked for him to be returned to Britain, a request rejected by the Bush administration.
In a statement, the foreign office said Britain could not voluntarily release these documents for "strong reasons of national security" - a phrase interpreted by human rights lawyers as signalling unwillingness to embarrass the United States. Lt Col Yvonne Bradley, Mohammed's military defence council, welcomed the High Court judgement. "It is hard for me to believe to this day that the UK or the US government - or any government that promotes democracy and freedom - would do this to another individual and continue to hide behind such terms as national security," she said in a BBC interview.
Britain has a long-standing intelligence-sharing arrangement with the United States that is one of the cornerstones of security policy. But the two countries have diverged sharply over the conduct of the US "war on terror", particularly on the use of torture. British security personnel were shocked to learn from the High Court judgment that the officer who interrogated Mohammed in Pakistan was questioned by the judges about alleged war crimes.
The British officer refused to testify, even in private, on the grounds that he might incriminate himself during interrogation. "We have yet another example of our relations with the US causing real embarrassment to the government," said Evan Harris, a member of parliament for the opposition Liberal Democrats who sits on the legislature's joint human rights committee. "British intelligence services were willing to be a party - witting or unwitting - to holding someone incommunicado for two years, rendering that person illegally to another country where torture was likely, and they have not been able to disprove allegations of torture in this case."
With Mohammed going on trial for his life, the British government seems to have no option but to hand over the documents required by the court, even at the cost of deepening the rift with the United States. As a general rule, British courts take seriously issues of national security, but not in this case, as the judges appear to give little credence now to US allegations against Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan trying to board a plane to Britain in 2002 using a false passport. As well as allegations he was intending to set off a "dirty bomb", the Pentagon said he had been trained to attack high-rise buildings. He has admitted receiving paramilitary training in Afghanistan, where he said he went to rid himself of a drug habit. But he insists that the confession that forms the basis of the US charge against him was extracted through torture.
The judgment comes at a bad time for MI5, which has been trying to shake off allegations that it is biased against Muslims. @email:firstname.lastname@example.org