WASHINGTON — A British government decision to settle a lawsuit by former Guantanamo detainees who claimed they were tortured after they were turned over to U.S. authorities is bringing renewed attention to Obama administration detention policies that remain under fire from human rights groups.
Britain announced Tuesday that it will pay as many as 16 former Guantanamo detainees millions of dollars to settle claims that its government was complicit in their abuse at the hands of U.S. officials. Details of the settlements have not been publicly disclosed.
The settlements triggered calls from the American Civil Liberties Union for the Obama administration to stop invoking the state secrets privilege to keep details of what happened to detainees from being aired in American courts.
Human-rights activists also oppose President Barack Obama's stance of not pursing prosecution against Bush-era officials who crafted interrogation policy, including practices such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning, that critics say violated international law.
The practices have drawn new attention as former President George W. Bush promotes his new book in which he boasts that such harsh interrogations saved lives by producing valuable information about terrorist plots.
Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said Tuesday that it was "deeply troubling" in the face of the British settlements that "here in the United States the Obama administration continues to shield the architects of the torture program from civil liability while Bush-era officials, including former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney, boast of their crimes on national television."
"If other democracies can compensate survivors and hold officials accountable for their endorsement of torture, surely we can do the same," he said.
In agreeing to pay detainees, the British government made no public admission that it had known about the alleged abuse or even that abuse had taken place.
Neither the White House nor the Justice Department issued a formal reaction Tuesday to reports of the British confidential settlements.
Bush maintains that Justice Department lawyers approved his administration's practices, and insists that they weren't torture, although previous U.S. administrations considered waterboarding to be torture. In an editorial on Tuesday, the Washington Post called for Congress to specifically outlaw waterboarding and sleep deprivation.
"Mr. Bush's cockiness on the subject is a measure of how distorted his views — and those of many others in Washington — remain on the subject of torture and how inadequate the legal barriers against it continue to be," the paper said.
White House and Justice Department officials declined on Tuesday to say whether Obama administration officials are considering any payments to detainees to settle pending cases. Instead, the White House said the administration is still committed to emptying the prison camps at Guantanamo.
"Our commanders have made clear that closing Guantanamo is a national security imperative, and we're continuing to work with Congress toward that end," said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., chairman of the terrorism subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, said of the British announcement, "I don't see how it affects anything here" with regard to detainee policy. Congress has systematically refused to fund Obama's Guantanamo closure plans and required the administration to notify it in advance of plans to transfer captives to other countries.
Among those compensated by the British are an Ethiopian-born refugee Binyam Mohamed, 32, who was released to Britain soon after Obama took office. Mohamed, who U.S. officials once planned to charge with war crimes, claimed that the British government was aware that the U.S. had sent him for questioning to Morocco, where his interrogators used a scalpel on his genitals to extract false confessions.
Also compensated were Bishar al Rawi, 42, an Iraqi refugee now living in the United Kingdom, and Jamil el Banna, 48, a Jordanian-born British resident. The two said U.S. agents kidnapped them in Gambia in 2002 while they were on a business trip. They'd been fighting in British courts to prove that the Blair government either passed intelligence to the U.S. that led to their capture or were aware of their abuse in U.S. custody.
U.S. officials have fought hard to keep the details of the British court cases from public view, even threatening last year to stop sharing intelligence with the country if a court decision that labeled Mohamed's treatment abusive was released.
The U.S. government also has sought to keep the details out of American courts, with both the Bush and Obama administrations invoking national security privileges to block a lawsuit against a West Coast aeronautics firm, Jeppesen, which Mohamed and others sought to sue for its alleged role in so-called rendition flights that secretly moved captives between secret detention facilities operated by the CIA.
Most recently, the Pentagon made a plea deal with Guantanamo's youngest detainee, Omar Khadr of Canada, in which the confessed Toronto-born teen terrorist waived the right to file similar actions to the British in exchange for just one more year at Guantanamo and repatriation for at most two years in a Canadian prison before his release.
As part of the deal, Khadr pledged not to pursue any "litigation or challenge, in any forum in any nation, against the United States or any official in their personal or official capacity with regard to my capture, detention,(and) prosecution."
Last month, another former detainee whose release was ordered by a federal judge and who was resettled in Europe a year ago sued the U.S. government in federal court in Washington for damages over what he called a "Kafkaesque nightmare'' that began when he was first held and tortured by the Taliban as an alleged pro-American Israeli spy, and then by U.S. troops who allegedly urinated on him when he arrived at Guantanamo in May 2002. He claims he was then subjected to solitary confinement and sleep deprivation, and that he attempted suicide 17 times in despair.
The U.S. government has yet to respond. The Justice Department's National Security spokesman, Dean Boyd, declined comment on Tuesday.
(Talev reported from Washington and Rosenberg, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami. David Lightman in Washington contributed to this article.)
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