By William Fisher
In a stunning reversal, Britain’s government admitted yesterday that it participated in the ‘extraordinary rendition’ to Afghanistan of two terror suspects captured in Iraq by the U.S.
U.K. Defense Secretary John Hutton told Britain's House of Commons that the two individuals were captured by U.K. forces in Iraq, transferred to U.S. detention and later moved to a U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan.
His admission contradicts the British Government’s earlier assertions that there were only two cases involving detainee rendition. That statement involved the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a British territory, which the government admitted had twice been used by the U.S. as a refueling stop for the secret transfer of terrorism suspects.
Apologizing to lawmakers for the error, Hutton said, "I regret that it is now clear that inaccurate information on this particular issue has been given to the House by my department," Hutton told lawmakers. "I must stress that this was based on the information available to ministers and those who were briefing them at the time."
At the time, the U.S. denied using the island for extraordinary rendition flights, but later acknowledged that it had misled the British government. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband later released a statement declaring that the U.S. had studied a list of 391 flights compiled by British human rights groups and lawmakers and that no other cases had been found.
Hutton told lawmakers that the two men are still being held in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. has given assurances that they are being held "in a humane, safe and secure environment."
It was unclear if the men were being held along with some 600 others at the U.S. military prison at Bagram Air Force Base, near Kabul. That base has been the target of recent charges from human rights groups that it has become Afghanistan’s Guantanamo Bay, that many prisoners have been locked up there for years without charges or access to lawyers, and that some have been tortured and abused.
Hutton’s disclosure comes on the heels of a firestorm caused by a lawsuit brought in the U.K. by British resident Binyam Mohamed, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, and who charged that British intelligence was complicit with the CIA in rendering him to Morocco, then to Bagram, and finally flying him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mohamed was held there since 2004 before his release and return to the U.K. earlier this week. No charges were ever filed against him. Until shortly before his release, he had been on a hunger strike at the Caribbean military prison.
The lawsuit he filed in the U.K. – similar to a separate suit brought in the U.S. -- has caused a furor in Britain, where officials asked the British High Court not to make public documents that Mohamed’s lawyers say substantiate his treatment. Opposition spokesmen there claimed the U.S. had threatened to stop sharing intelligence with the U.K. if the documents were made public. The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, denied there was any threat.
Mohamed’s U.S. lawyer, Steven Watt, a staff attorney in the Human Rights program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told this reporter, “It’s about time the U.K. came clean. News of Britain’s complicity with the CIA has been slowly leaking out for several years. We now know more than enough to conclude that the U.K. has played a role.”
“Both countries are still trying to keep this information secret, either to avoid political embarrassment or to cover up some egregious human rights abuses,” he said.
Asked by this reporter about the timing of the Defense Minister’s announcement and apology, Watt said, “Maybe they finally want to make a clean breast of it.”
In a related development, newly-confirmed CIA Director Leon Panetta said Wednesday that President Barack Obama may limit the countries to which the U.S. sends alleged terrorists to those with good human-rights records, and will ensure they are not tortured or abused.
"If it's someone we are interested in, there is no purpose to rendering anyone, particularly if it's a high-value target," Panetta said.
Panetta added that he believes prisoners should only be handed over to countries that have a legitimate legal interest in them, such as their home country or a country where charges are pending against them.
Panetta seemed to be trying to distance himself from statements he made during his congressional confirmation hearing earlier this month. He told lawmakers that the Obama administration intended to continue rendering prisoners captured in the war on terrorism.
Panetta said the administration would rely on a long-standing policy to first secure “diplomatic assurances” from the country that the prisoner would not be tortured or have his human rights violated. But human rights groups point out that such assurances have proved to be virtually worthless in the past, when suspects have been flown to countries with egregious human rights records.
Panetta said the Obama administration would "make very sure" that prisoners are not mistreated after they are rendered. Asked by the Associated Press exactly how that would be done, Panetta said, "Well, I guess, you know, A, make sure, first of all, the kind of countries that we render will tell us an awful lot about that," he said. "No. 2, I think diplomatically we just have to make sure that we have a presence to ensure that that does not happen."
The White House is currently reviewing the extraordinary rendition policy and program.
Panetta said he does not believe additional prisoners will be sent to Guantanamo this year. In his first week in office, Obama ordered the prison closed within a year, but no decision has yet been made public on what to do with the roughly 250 inmates still there. Only a handful have been charged with a crime, and those trials have been suspended while the Obama administration reviews its legal options.