Image: Binyam Mohamed
Shaun Curry  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Binyam Mohamed alleged Britain was aware he was severely beaten, subjected to sleep deprivation and had his genitals sliced with a scalpel.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/16/2010 2:46:58 PM ET 2010-11-16T19:46:58

Britain will make payments to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees in an out-of-court settlement to end a series of potentially embarrassing legal battles over torture allegations, the government said on Tuesday.

The ex-detainees, Britons or British residents, were claiming damages from the government over allegations that they were mistreated during their detention abroad with the knowledge and in some cases the complicity of British security services.

"The government has now agreed a mediated settlement of the civil damages claims brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay," said Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, adding that details were subject to a legally binding confidentiality agreement.

"No admissions of culpability have been made in settling these cases, nor have any of the claimants withdrawn their allegations," Clarke said in a statement to parliament.

He did not say how much money the ex-detainees would receive. British media had earlier reported that the settlement totaled several million pounds.

Britain's ITV News reported that at least 7 ex-detainees would receive payments, and claimed one man would be paid more than one million pounds ($1.6 million). It did not cite its sources.

"The alternative to any payments made would have been protracted and extremely expensive litigation in an uncertain legal environment in which the government could not be certain that it would be able to defend departments and the security and intelligence agencies without compromising national security," Clarke told parliament.

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The civil cases risked exposing sensitive evidence that was potentially embarrassing for the government and could have compromised cooperation with key partners like U.S. agencies.

Diplomats and government officials previously had confirmed negotiations were taking place with lawyers for 12 former detainees, all either British citizens or residents, who had begun legal action against the government.

A precedent was set when the previous government lost a legal battle earlier this year to prevent the disclosure of U.S. intelligence material relating to alleged abuse by CIA agents.

The material was disclosed during a legal battle by former detainee Binyam Mohamed, who alleged he was tortured in Pakistan and Morocco before being transferred to Guantanamo, and said Britain knew about this. He is believed to be one of the ex-detainees who will receive part of the settlement.

Binyam Mohamed alleged Britain was aware he was severely beaten, subjected to sleep deprivation and had his genitals sliced with a scalpel. A British court has ruled that Mohamed was subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" by U.S. authorities.

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Clarke said the cost of fighting the court cases to the end had been estimated at 30 to 50 million pounds ($48-80 million) over three to five years, and the out-of-court settlement would save taxpayers' money.

He also said it would free staff at the security services to focus on important intelligence work. Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman had said about 100 intelligence staff had been working full-time on fighting the court cases.

The heads of MI5 and MI6, the internal and external intelligence agencies, issued a joint statement welcoming the settlement, which they said would "allow the agencies to concentrate on protecting national security."

Two criminal cases and 12 civil cases had been brought against the government before British courts. Police investigations into the criminal allegations were still under way and the government would make a further statement when they had concluded, Clarke said.

 

Slideshow: Life goes on in Guantanamo (on this page)

British Prime Minister David Cameron was also reportedly concerned that the lawsuits could prompt new arguments over the handling of intelligence provided to Britain by the U.S. and other allies.

Earlier this year, a judge ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on the treatment of Mohamed. Under long-standing conventions nations don't disclose intelligence shared by their allies, and the White House reacted angrily to the release.

A payout to former terrorism suspects is likely to strain relations further. Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands said that even if Britain makes no admission of guilt, "it does send out a very strong signal and it is going to cause difficulties with other countries, particularly the United States."

'Torture in freedom's name'
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, described the payments as "not very palatable."

Speaking to the BBC, Chakrabarti added: "There is a price to be paid for lawlessness and torture in freedom's name.

"The government now accepts that torture is never justified and we were all let down — let's learn all the lessons and move on."

The settlement paves the way for a planned independent inquiry which is due to examine how much the government knew about the treatment of detainees by allies. It cannot begin until legal proceedings are concluded.

Retired judge Peter Gibson was appointed in July to lead the study and asked to begin his investigation once the lawsuits had been dealt with, and after police conclude criminal inquiries into the actions of two specific intelligence officers.

Police are investigating whether an officer with domestic spy agency MI5 is guilty of criminal wrongdoing over the alleged torture of an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee. In a separate case, the actions of an officer with overseas intelligence service MI6 are also being investigated.

Britain's government and intelligence agencies have repeatedly denied they were involved in, or condoned, the use of torture.

However, Foreign Secretary William Hague said in August that the government will overhaul current practices based on Gibson's recommendations. "We will act on the lessons learnt, and tackle the difficult issues we currently face head on," he said.

Hague said the inquiry was necessary to "clear the stain from our reputation as a country."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

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  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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