Britain outlines secret service torture probe

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Britain unveiled details Tuesday of an inquiry into claims its security services were complicit in the torture of suspected violent extremists on foreign soil after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that the probe, to be led by retired judge Sir Peter Gibson, was expected to start before the end of the year and should report within 12 months.

He also announced plans to look again at how British courts handle intelligence and admitted that relations with the United States had been "strained" over the disclosure of secret information.

In February, a British court ordered publication of previously classified details about US interrogators' treatment of British resident Binyam Mohamed, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, to the White House's dismay.

"While there is no evidence that any British officer was directly engaged in torture in the aftermath of 9/11, there are questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done," Cameron said.

"The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows."

Cameron also announced the publication for the first time of guidance for intelligence and military personnel on how to deal with detainees held by other countries.

This includes a stipulation that British agents "must never take any action where they know or believe that torture will occur".

He additionally indicated that compensation could be offered to people who have brought civil court actions over their treatment at Guantanamo.

The probe will only start once court cases involving claims of British agents' complicity in torture have been concluded.

Around 12 such cases have been brought, including allegations that they witnessed mistreatment involving hooding and shackling.

And the probe will not be entirely in public due to the secret nature of intelligence information involved, Cameron said, although some hearings will be open.

Cameron's coalition government, which took power in May, had already indicated it wanted to hold the inquiry, but his statement outlined how it would work for the first time.

News of the investigation was welcomed by advocacy group Human Rights Watch, although its United Kingdom director Tom Porteous stressed it must be "demonstrably independent, comprehensive and to the greatest extent possible public".

Mohamed's is the most prominent case of alleged complicity by British agents in torture by agents from other countries.

The Ethiopian-born man, who spent time in Afghanistan in 2001 before being detained in Pakistan the following year, says he was interrogated there by an officer from security service MI5 whose role was to support US interrogators.

Mohamed was later transferred to Morocco, where he alleges he was tortured by local officers who asked him questions supplied by British agents. He claims to have been tortured in "medieval" ways.

He was later imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for more than four years before being released last year.

© 2010 AFP

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