LONDON (AP) – A senior British judge on Friday accused domestic spy agency MI5 of colluding in the alleged torture of detainees in U.S. custody, issuing a stern criticism despite a government attempt to suppress the details.
Master of the Rolls David Neuberger, one of Britain’s most senior judges, said MI5’s insistence that it was unaware of the harsh treatment of detainees held overseas in CIA custody was unreliable. He also suggested the agency may have misled Parliament and judges over how much it knew about the mistreatment of terrorism suspects.
Neuberger’s criticisms were originally contained in a draft of a Feb. 10 ruling ordering the release of a summary of CIA documents detailing ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed’s mistreatment in Pakistan in 2002. But the judge removed his rebuke to MI5 before releasing the ruling after government lawyer Jonathan Sumption, having seen a draft circulated to lawyers in the case, sent a letter complaining that the criticisms were unsubstantiated.
Both the original draft and a final revised version of his criticisms were released by Britain’s Court of Appeal on Friday following a legal challenge by Mohamed’s lawyers. “Some security services officials appear to have a dubious record relating to actual involvement, and frankness about any such involvement, with the mistreatment of Mr. Mohamed,” Neuberger wrote in his final, revised ruling.
Lawyers for Mohamed had accused the court of bowing to political pressure in deciding to remove the criticism from the original Feb. 10 ruling.
Neuberger accused MI5 of seeking to disguise their role in Mohamed’s alleged torture by withholding details from ministers and their oversight body, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. “The security services have an interest in the suppression of such information,” he wrote in the finalized ruling.
In his original draft, Neuberger said Mohamed’s case illustrated wider problems within MI5 ranks over a supposed lax attitude toward the mistreatment of detainees, but his final ruling focused only on the agency’s actions over Mohamed.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he had spoken with MI5 director Jonathan Evans following the ruling.
“It is the nature of the work of the intelligence services that they cannot defend themselves against many of the allegations that have been made. But I can, and I have every confidence that their work does not undermine the principles and values that are the best guarantee of our future security,” Brown said.
Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the government rejects “any suggestion that the security services have a systemic problem in respecting human rights,” or in suppressing information.
In a rare public statement in response this month, Evans insisted his agency does not “collude in torture or encourage others to torture on our behalf.” Evans denied there had been any attempt to cover up British complicity in torture, and said MI5 is cooperating with inquiries into officers’ conduct.
Police are investigating whether one MI5 officer, known as Witness B, is guilty of criminal wrongdoing in relation to the alleged torture of Mohamed. Neuberger suggested other MI5 officials may have acted inappropriately. “I have in mind in this case Witness B, but the evidence in this case suggests that it is likely that there were others,” his final ruling said.
Neuberger’s original draft had also suggested U.S. officials had directly mistreated Mohamed, but his final version instead criticized the detainee’s treatment while held “at the behest of U.S. officials.”
Britain’s Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge said the decision to release Neuberger’s draft ruling was highly unusual, but necessary to dispel fears that the judiciary’s independence had been compromised.
“A damaging myth may develop to the effect that in this case a minister of the Crown … was somehow permitted to interfere with the judicial process. This did not happen,” Judge said.
Ethiopia-born Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and says he was tortured there and in Morocco before being flown to Guantanamo Bay. He was released in February 2009, never having faced a trial.
Britain’s government faces 12 legal cases mounted by former detainees who claim the U.K. was complicit in their alleged torture.
Opposition Conservative Party lawmaker David Davis and other human rights advocates said Neuberger’s comments strengthened calls for a judge-led inquiry into Britain’s handling of terrorism suspects. This has been a shameful business,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. “Complicity in torture is bad enough without repeat and strenuous attempts to cover it up.”