updated 11/1/2006 9:07:42 PM ET 2006-11-02T02:07:42

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is undermining its opposition to torture in a misguided attempt to combat terrorism, Human Rights Watch charged in a report published Thursday.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Blair's government has at least once sought to use evidence extracted under torture in legal proceedings, has signed agreements to deport prisoners to countries where they may be tortured, and has turned a blind eye to U.S. mistreatment of prisoners and secret movement of suspects to countries where they could be abused, Human Rights Watch states.

"Opening the door to torture won't make Britain safer," Human Rights Watch's associate director Benjamin Ward said in a statement. "The most effective response to terrorism is good police and intelligence work, not setting aside core values."

A Foreign Office spokesman said Britain disapproves of torture and does not practice or condone it.

The report denounces the government's attempts to deport individuals to countries where it says they could be tortured.

It accused Britain of trying to bypass United Nations and European Union law by deporting suspects after obtaining diplomatic assurances that they will not be harmed.

London has signed so-called memoranda of understanding with both Jordan and Libya in which those nations promise to respect the rights of suspected militants expelled from Britain.

The agreements are part of Blair's effort to bolster Britain's power to expel radical Islamic preachers and terrorist suspects. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Britain is not allowed to deport people to countries where they may face torture or mistreatment.

But Human Rights Watch said assurances such as those Britain has obtained are worthless and unenforceable.

The Home Office insists the government must weigh national security concerns against the risk that an individual may be tortured if deported, a spokeswoman said. Diplomatic assurances are only accepted if approved by the courts, and comply with human rights obligations, the spokeswoman said.

Britain cited for prisoner transfers
Human Rights Watch also criticized Britain for its failure to condemn alleged prisoner abuse and the secret, international transfers of terrorism suspects, a process known as extraordinary rendition, by its closest ally, the United States.

Blair's government accepted Washington's assurances that no CIA rendition flights passed through British airspace without investigation, according to the report.

Britain denies colluding in any secret program to transfer CIA prisoners and says it has received only four rendition requests from the United States, all in 1998, two of which were approved and two denied.

Human Rights Watch also criticized Blair and his office for failing to condemn U.S. imprisonment of hundreds of terrorist suspects without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay until three years after the camp opened. Only after Washington suggested closing the Guantanamo facility did Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, criticize it, according to the watchdog.

The Foreign Office spokesman disagreed, noting that Blair had condemned Guantanamo at a press conference in December 2005.

Blair has gone no further in public than calling the camp an "anomaly" that sooner or later must end.

Officials condemn Guantanamo facility
But two senior legal officials, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith and Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, spoke out more strongly against the camp earlier this year, and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said last month that the detentions there were "unacceptable in terms of human rights."

In December 2005, Britain's highest court ruled that the government could not use evidence obtained through torture, even if British agents were not involved.

The government had argued it could use evidence obtained under torture by foreign agents in hearings of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which hears deportation appeals from individuals accused of threatening national security.

Human Rights Watch said the use of information extracted under duress does not make Britain safer from terrorism.

The government should rely on policing and prosecution to thwart violence, it said, arguing that current law gives prosecutors sufficient tools to try suspected terrorists preemptively.

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