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British court orders release of U.S. document about Guantanamo detainee

Former Guantanamo Bay inmate Binyam Mohamed says U.S. and British agents knew he was being tortured. Britain said releasing a summary of his treatment would harm relations with U.S. intelligence.

October 17, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — An American document that allegedly describes the torture of a former Guantanamo Bay inmate should be made public, a British court ruled Friday, dismissing Britain's argument that it was suppressing the information to preserve its intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and to uphold national safety.

The document contains a seven-paragraph summary of the treatment that Binyam Mohamed received in 2002 after being detained as a suspected terrorist. Mohamed, 31, a British resident, alleges that he was subjected to torture, including beatings and sexual mutilation, by interrogators in Pakistan and elsewhere with the full knowledge of American and British intelligence agents. The high court ruled that the secret synopsis, which had been blacked out in previous court filings, had no intelligence value and could be released.

Rather, the judges wrote, "the public interest in making the paragraphs public is overwhelming," because the summary could shed light on illegal activities carried out by the U.S. and British governments.

The controversial case has been closely watched by government officials and human-rights lawyers. News organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Los Angeles Times, have sued for disclosure of the secret summary, arguing the public has a right to know what kind of actions the British and American governments engaged in.

In spite of the ruling, however, the information was not immediately published Friday in order to give the government time to lodge an appeal.

David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, expressed "deep disappointment" with the decision and said that the inviolable principle of intelligence-sharing -- mutual secrecy -- was under threat.

"The consequence of the court's judgment today, if left unchallenged, will be a restriction on what is shared with us," Miliband said. "The fundamental question at issue in this judgment is not the mistreatment allegations made by Binyam Mohamed. It is solely about the principle underpinning intelligence sharing."

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly criticized the ruling, saying it was detrimental to British and American intelligence cooperation.

"We both have a stake in ensuring that this kind of intelligence sharing continues to the fullest extent possible," Kelly told reporters.

The high court judges disagreed.

"It cannot be suggested that information as to how officials of the U.S. government admitted treating [Mohamed] during his interrogation is information that can in any democratic society governed by the rule of law be characterized as 'secret' or as 'intelligence,' " the court said, adding that "the risk to national security . . . is not a serious one."

Mohamed, who was born in Ethiopia but became a legal British resident, was arrested by Pakistani authorities in 2002 for traveling on a false passport.

His lawyers say he was taken by the CIA to Morocco and Afghanistan under "extraordinary rendition" procedures and subjected to interrogations that included beatings, sleep deprivation and cuts on his penis with a scalpel. He wound up at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was to be tried on charges of plotting with Al Qaeda to set off a "dirty bomb" in the U.S.

Mohamed maintains that his confessions to the supposed plot were extracted under torture. Last October, the Pentagon dropped all charges against him, and in February, he returned to Britain, the first Guantanamo inmate to be set free by the Obama administration.

His lawyers called Friday's high court decision a "great victory for press freedom and open democracy."

"The judges have made clear what we have said all along -- it is irrational to pretend that evidence of torture should be classified as a threat to national security," said attorney Clive Stafford Smith.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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