By William Fisher
A British court ruled yesterday that U.S. authorities asked a Guantanamo Bay detainee to drop allegations of torture in exchange for his freedom.
A ruling by two British High Court judges said the U.S. offered Binyam Mohamed a plea bargain deal in October. Mohamed refused the deal and the U.S. dropped all charges against him later last year.
Mohamed is an Ethiopian who moved to Britain when he was a teenager. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and claims he was tortured both there and in Morocco. He was transferred to Guantanamo in 2004. He was finally returned to the U.K. in late February 2009, with no charges against him.
He is suing the British Government, charging that its intelligence services were complicit with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in facilitating his “extraordinary rendition” and torture while in custody.
The court said the plea bargain also asked Mohamed to plead guilty to two charges and agree not to speak publicly about his ordeal.
Zachary Katznelson, Legal Director of Reprieve, a legal action charity that has represented Mohamed for four years, told us, “In Binyam Mohamed’s case, the United States clearly prized secrecy over justice. It simply did not want the truth to get out.”
He added, “That has nothing to do with national security, but everything to do with the potential for national embarrassment. If we are to truly combat terrorism, we must use the tools of democracy – openness, fairness, justice – not abandon them, then desperately try to cover up our wrongs.”
In their ruling yesterday, the British judges revealed how the U.S. government tried to get Mohamed to sign an agreement stating that he had never been tortured, to promise not to speak with the media upon his release, and to plead guilty as a condition of his release back to Britain – all without his lawyers being allowed access to evidence that would help prove his innocence.
This annex of the British ruling was previously kept confidential by the British court because of the American military commission rules, which forbade making the materials public.
The British judges said the U.S. military also wanted Mohamed to assign any rights he might have to compensation to the U.S. government. They insisted that he accept a minimum sentence of ten years – despite the fact that the U.S. military had not told him what the charges were to be.
Mohamed was also required to waive any claim he might have to seeing any exculpatory evidence identified by the British judges. “If Mr. Mohamed was to ask to see this exculpatory evidence, the ‘deal’ would be off,” a Reprieve spokesperson said.
“The facts revealed reflect the way the US government has consistently tried to cover up the truth of Binyam Mohamed’s torture,” said Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith. “He was being told he would never leave Guantánamo Bay unless he promised never to discuss his torture, and never sue either the Americans or the British to force disclosure of his mistreatment.”
During his time in Guantánamo Bay, the U.S. military tried to prosecute him through the military commissions, which were characterized by the British former Lord Justice Steyn as “kangaroo courts.”
Reprieve said, “This proposal discussed by the British courts was made by the U.S. military at a time when he was not charged with anything. It also came after a long history of efforts to make Mohamed plead guilty to crimes he insisted that he did not commit. He had always been willing to enter a plea of “no contest,” -- which essentially means you deny your guilt, but enter a plea because you recognize it is the only way to resolve the case -- on the condition that he would be sentenced to time served, and immediately released back to Britain.”
By early 2009, Reprieve charges, “The U.S. military was still trying to get Mohamed to plead guilty to something – anything – in order to save face. The final ‘offer’ was that this man, originally alleged to be a most dangerous terrorist, should plead guilty and receive a sentence of only ten days in prison, less than one might expect for many driving offences. Mohamed rejected this offer, as he continued to insist that he was not guilty.”
"Offering a man who is protesting his innocence freedom on the condition that he pleads guilty to something and serves a 10-day sentence is face-saving on an horrific scale,” said Reprieve Executive Director Clare Algar.
The case has also caused a furor in the U.K. and a problem for the U.S. State Department. Britain’s High Court refused to release seven paragraphs that the court had redacted in an earlier opinion, saying that the redacted material lent credence to the torture allegations by Mohamed. The court said it reached its decision because of what it called a threat from the U.S. to reconsider sharing intelligence with the U.K.
But, in a highly unusual criticism, the High Court expressed dismay that a democracy “governed by the rule of law” would seek to suppress evidence
“relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,
politically embarrassing though it might be.”
The court said the Bush administration had made the threat in a letter to the
Foreign Office last September. It called on the Obama administration to reverse that position. The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, denied that there was any threat from the U.S.
After Mohamed was captured, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said that he had been complicit with Jose Padilla in a plan to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States. Padilla was never charged with this plot, but was convicted on other terrorism-related charges by a federal court in 2007. Last year, the Justice Department said it was dropping the dirty-bomb charges against Mohamed, and last October all charges against him were dropped.
Mohamed is currently appealing a separate U.S. case, on behalf of himself and four other terror suspects. In that case, government lawyers from the Obama Administration sought a decision not to reinstate a case that was thrown out by a lower court last year because government lawyers argued successfully that allowing the case to go forward would jeopardize U.S. national security.
In opposing reinstatement of the case, Obama’s lawyers used the same “state secrets” privilege used by Bush lawyers in the original case. The appeals court has not yet ruled in the case, which charges that a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, Jeppesen Dataplan, knowingly provided aircraft and logistical services to facilitate the Central Intelligence Agency’s rendition of Mohamed to overseas prisons.