British judges air Guantanamo details U.S. wanted kept secret

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 23, 2009 

LONDON — Two British High Court judges revealed Monday that U.S. military prosecutors tried to pressure a former detainee at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into a plea bargain — on charges that hadn't been specified — that would have resulted in a 10-year sentence in addition to the years he'd already been detained.

In a previously secret annex to a ruling they made last autumn, Lord Justice Thomas and Justice Lloyd Jones, who had access to classified U.S. documents, also revealed that American prosecutors had tried to pressure Binyam Mohamed into signing a statement that said he hadn't been tortured and wouldn't sue the U.S. government or its allies over his treatment in captivity.

The Obama administration freed Mohamed last month and returned him to Britain after holding him for seven years without charges, after the High Court's initial statements provoked a public furor in Britain.

The High Court ruling, which was made Oct. 22 but hadn't been published previously because of agreements covering classified information between the U.S. and Britain, said that Mohamed was asked to agree to a plea "in circumstances where there are no pending charges against him, where he has no idea how any new charges against him will be framed and where he is not to receive sight" of exculpatory evidence against him.

The Department of Justice referred questions Monday to the Pentagon, which had no comment. Neither did the State Department or the White House.

The British judges said they released the annex to their judgment partly because Mohamed "wanted it to be made clear to the world what had happened and how he had been treated by the United States government." Mohamed lived in Britain for a number of years before he traveled to Pakistan in 2001 and was arrested. U.S. officials alleged that he was training with al Qaida.

Mohamed's U.S. and British lawyers on Monday condemned the reported attempt to pressure and silence their client while he was in captivity. They said that in addition to requiring Mohamed to deny that he was tortured, the U.S. military prosecutor wanted Mohamed to agree not to speak to the news media after he was freed.

"My reaction to this is shock and shame," said Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed's U.S.-assigned military lawyer, who was involved in the plea-bargain talks with U.S. prosecutors. "All these things have been done behind closed doors and in dark corners of U.S. prisons."

The revelations of Mohamed's treatment in U.S. captivity are "the tip of the iceberg," Bradley said. "I think he will be breaking ground for other detainees."

"The facts revealed today reflect the way the U.S. government has consistently tried to cover up the truth of Binyam Mohamed's torture," said Clive Stafford Smith, a member of Mohamed's legal team and the director of the legal-aid charity Reprieve.

"He was being told he would never leave Guantanamo Bay unless he promised never to discuss his torture, and never sue either the Americans or the British to force disclosure of his mistreatment," Stafford Smith said. "Gradually, the truth is leaking out, and the governments on both sides of the Atlantic should pause to consider whether they should continue to fight to keep this torture evidence secret."

Mohamed has charged that agents from MI5, one of Britain's intelligence services, as well as the FBI and the CIA, were involved in his interrogation and alleged torture in Morocco and other countries before he was sent to Guantanamo in 2004. U.S. officials alleged that Mohamed was involved in plotting an attack with a "dirty bomb," but later dropped the charges.

Mohamed has sued in the British courts to try to obtain the release of documents about his treatment in captivity. The British Foreign Office has blocked the release of 42 classified communications between British and American intelligence officials, however, claiming that their publication would harm intelligence-sharing between the countries.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office, who couldn't be quoted by name as a matter of policy, said Monday that the plea-bargain negotiations revealed in the newly released court document "had nothing to do with us." "The U.K. was not a party to these negotiations," the spokesman added, saying that the talks were between Mohamed's legal team and the U.S. government.

Lord Peter Goldsmith, the British attorney general in the Labor government under former Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2001 to 2007, said Monday that he "did not know there were any attempts to silence the detainees." If clear evidence of such attempts exists, it suggests that "the people who had been detaining him had something to hide," Goldsmith said.

The former attorney general has said repeatedly that the U.S. military commissions set up to try Guantanamo detainees were "not a fair venue for assessing guilt or innocence."

Goldsmith said a full investigation of Britain's role in Mohamed's case must be conducted. His successor as attorney general, Baroness Scotland, is looking into allegations of British collusion in possible torture.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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