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U.K. To Pay Ex-Guantanamo Detainees In Settlement

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A group of former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has long been trying to sue the British government. They insist they were mistreated, even tortured and that British intelligence agencies colluded in their mistreatment. Well, today, British authorities announced that they've agreed to settle out of court rather than face a long and potentially embarrassing legal battle.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: There are 16 of them. They're all British citizens or residents. They were all Guant�namo detainees, suspects in the so-called war on terror. Legal wrangling over their cases has been going on for months. Finally, Britain's Justice Minister Ken Clark announced in Parliament today that an out of court settlement has been reached. He argued the government had no choice.

Mr. KEN CLARK (Justice Minister, U.K.): The alternative to any payments made would have been protracted, an 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.

REEVES: Clark said defending the civil lawsuits could have cost as much as $80 million in legal fees and could've lasted up to five years.

There's another reason. In May, in a case involving six of the men, a British court ruled the government couldn't only rely on secret evidence. Evidence against its intelligence services would have to be made public. The British authorities wanted to avoid that.

The director of the human rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, welcome today's announcement.

Ms. SHAMI CHAKRABARTI (Director, Liberty): Some of these people were tortured and relied upon our government, who is also their government, to protect them. And instead, there are now legal findings in some of these cases that we did the opposite of protecting them. At times, we sent questions to the interrogators who were torturing them and so on. These aren't just our allegations anymore. The government wouldn't be settling these claims if they didn't have merit.

REEVES: Details of the settlement are being kept secret. It's believed to be worth about $8 million, with one man apparently receiving more than 1.6 million. There are suggestions that man is Binyam Mohamed, who was detained in Pakistan and sent by the CIA to Morocco before being dispatched to Guantanamo.

Mohammed solicitor, Sapna Malik, refused to comment on those reports, but said no amount of money could compensate Mohamed for what he'd experienced.

Ms. SAPNA MALIK (Solicitor): There is no doubt that in his case, members of the security services were deeply involved in what happened to him, particularly in Pakistan and also in Morocco, where he spent 18 months of horrendous torture, and where information clearly provided by the security services was heavily used in his interrogations and torture.

REEVES: In this case, the British authorities weren't directly accused of torture. Philippe Sands is an international lawyer who represented some of the detainees. He says the allegations were primarily about whether the authorities violated international law because they knew the detainees were being abused but did nothing, or were actually complicit in the abuse.

Professor PHILIPPE SANDS (International Law, University College London): Since many of the cases concerned allegations of complicity in torture, you've got to assume that it includes not just the fact of detention overseas for extended periods of time, but also the treatment and presumably the allegation of the failure of the British government to take steps to bring abuse and possibly torture, as alleged, to an end.

REEVES: In settling, the British government is not admitting any guilt. The Islamist militants who opposed the British and Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq may not see it that way. Some hard-line Islamist websites are already greeting this as a victory.

The settlement clears the path for an independent inquiry that Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron promised to set up shortly after he was elected. It's going to look into what the British government knew about so-called renditions, and the treatment of prisoners by its allies.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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