Image: Binyam Mohamed
Sang Tan  /  AP
Binyam Mohamed, a British resident freed from Guantanamo Bay prison, returns to Britain on Feb. 23, 2009, after nearly seven years in U.S. captivity. He says the U.S. sent him to Morocco where he was interrogated and brutally tortured.
updated 1/12/2012 3:57:50 PM ET 2012-01-12T20:57:50

Britain's spy agencies will face a criminal investigation into claims that intelligence shared with Moammar Gadhafi's regime led to the torture or rendition of two Libyan men and their families, authorities announced Thursday.

A criminal inquiry was launched in 2008 when a former Guantanamo Bay detainee alleged that intelligence agencies were complicit in his torture. The inquiry later expanded to include claims by two Libyans who accused intelligence agents of sharing sensitive information with Gadhafi's regime.

"We want to get to the bottom of this — not just on grounds of justice or ethical considerations, but because this whole saga has threatened to make Britain less safe," said Conservative lawmaker Andrew Tyrie who chairs a special committee on the practice of extraordinary rendition.

Tripoli's military council commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a former fighter in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which had opposed Gadhafi and had asylum in the U.K., claims both British and U.S. intelligence may have played a role in his 2004 detention in Thailand's capital Bangkok and transfer to Tripoli.

Documents uncovered during the fall of Tripoli disclosed the close working ties between Gadhafi's spies and Western intelligence officials. One document allegedly contained a message from British foreign spy agency MI6 making reference to the rendition of Belhaj, also known as Abu 'Abd Allah Sadiq.

"I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu 'Abd Allah Sadiq," the message said. "This was the least we could do for you and Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years."

Belhaj, who said his pregnant wife was also abused, praised the decision Thursday to open a criminal inquiry.

"I trust the police will get to the bottom of this, and find not just the rank-and-file agents, but those ministers who were truly responsible for her suffering," Belhaj said. "To this day, I cannot understand why my pregnant wife was put on the same plane and abused as well."

Sami al-Saadi, another Libyan who had been opposed to Gadhafi, also claims Britain's foreign spy agency, MI6, played a role in his rendition, or return to a country where torture is allowed.

Intelligence agents complicit in alleged torture?
The New York-based Human Rights Watch found a cache of documents in the abandoned office of Gadhafi's former intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, after the fall of the regime. Among them was a fax the CIA sent to Koussa in March 2004, which purportedly showed that the agency would support MI6 and Gadhafi in seeking Saadi's rendition.

Story: U.K. officials greased Lockerbie bomber's  release, report finds

Two days after the fax, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Tripoli to meet Gadhafi. The two were photographed embracing and several deals were announced, including a multimillion pound agreement for a gas exploration contract with Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant.

The visit was partially aimed at getting Libya to abandon weapons of mass destruction.

Still, Saadi, his wife and four children were bundled onto a plane from Hong Kong to Libya where they were then separated. Saadi claims he was tortured.

It's not is not clear whether investigators could call on Blair for questioning. Former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said he did not know about the rendition.

MI6 chief John Sawers said Thursday it was in the agency's interest to deal with the new allegations "as swiftly as possible so we can draw a line under them and focus on the crucial work we now face in the future."

Slideshow: Moammar Gadhafi through the years (on this page)

While British intelligence agents will face new questions over the Libyans' claims, prosecutors and police said Thursday there was insufficient evidence to prove that agents were complicit in the alleged torture or mistreatment of former Guantanamo detainees.

The case that prompted the initial investigation was that of former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed.

Mohamed, an Ethiopian who moved to Britain as a teenager and was initially held in Pakistan, says he was sent by the U.S. to Morocco where he was interrogated and brutally tortured. He alleges that he told an MI5 officer of his mistreatment in 2002.

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions, said there was evidence that intelligence agents provided information to the US authorities about Mohamed and also supplied questions for them. But, he said, there was "insufficient evidence to prove to the standard required in a criminal court" that any spies provided information when they knew he was being tortured, or suspected he was at risk.

Mohamed said Thursday he hadn't expected British spies to be charged, but that new evidence may eventually emerge that would reopen cases.

"If there is any further and wider criminal investigation ... I believe it would be completely impossible to decide that there has not been a pattern of massive complicity by UK bodies in criminality at the highest levels directed at other Muslim prisoners," Mohamed said. "My experience was not isolated; it was part of a pattern."

Story: UK charm offensive preceded Lockerbie bomber's release

Eliza Manningham-Buller, a former head of MI5, has said she believes the U.S. deliberately misled its allies over its handling of detainees during the so-called war on terror.

In a separate allegation of complicity from a former detainee, investigators also say they failed to find sufficient evidence — mostly because they lacked access to witnesses and the detainee who had been held by U.S. authorities at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Payouts to former Gitmo prisoners
Some 3,000 terror suspects continue to be held at the secretive detention facility where detainees lack access to lawyers. Human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized U.S. authorities for a lack of transparency and legal protection for the detainees.

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

"One thing you read very clearly in those materials is that it is not that there wasn't torture, it is not that the British weren't involved, it is that there are witnesses who are not available to put their part," said Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer with the legal charity Reprieve who represents some of the alleged victims of torture and rendition.

Most of the torture allegations came from terror suspects who were either initially held in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or sent to other countries such as Morocco for interrogation.

British agents were accused of passing on information about detainees but not of direct abuse.

Britain has already made payouts to 16 former detainees at Guantanamo. Among those alleged to have been part of the settlements were Mohamed, Bishar Al Rawi, Jamil El Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Moazzam Begg and Martin Mubanga.

British prosecutors and police said that while there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges now, cases could be reopened if new evidence emerges.

A separate government inquiry into Britain's role in the so-called war on terror is expected to begin later this year.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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  1. Image: Guantanamo Prison Remains Open Over A Year After Obama Vowed To Close It
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    Above: Slideshow (9) Life goes on in Guantanamo
  2. Image: TO GO WITH AFP PACKAGE ON THE 40TH ANNIV
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    Slideshow (34) Moammar Gadhafi through the years

Video: Report slams release of Lockerbie bomber

  1. Closed captioning of: Report slams release of Lockerbie bomber

    >>> six years ago, pan am flight 106 was blown up over lockerbie scotland, killing 266 people. nbc news investigative correspondent has an advanced copy.

    >> reporter: the scottish government released megrahi on compassionate grounds because he's believed to have terminal cancer and six months to live. today he's reportedly still alive and living in a luxury village in libya. threatening to cut off bp's $900 billion oil deal with libya. the british spy master repeatedly lobbied the british government for megrahi 's release. the scotts were trying to get a $4 billion loan. and finally the prognosis that megrahi had terminal cancer was wrong.

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