Caught in the crossfire

Since Tarek Dergoul returned to Britain from Guantanamo Bay, his lawyer and publicist have been at loggerheads. Robert Verkaik reports
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The Independent Online

The human rights lawyer Louise Christian and the publicist Max Clifford make unlikely bedfellows. Christian has built her career advising on unpopular and difficult causes, while Clifford has made a fortune representing the interests of minor celebrities to popular newspapers.

The human rights lawyer Louise Christian and the publicist Max Clifford make unlikely bedfellows. Christian has built her career advising on unpopular and difficult causes, while Clifford has made a fortune representing the interests of minor celebrities to popular newspapers.

They were thrown together this month when they both found themselves instructed by the family of Tarek Dergoul, one of the five Britons released from Guantanamo Bay. Inevitably it led to an acrimonious and public falling out. Christian accused Clifford of taking advantage of her client while Clifford retorted that Christian had no experience of handling the media.

The truth is that for almost two years Christian has been tirelessly campaigning for the return of all the Guantanamo Britons, dealing personally with journalists. But in the build-up to the men's return the Dergoul family had become besieged by the press who were offering increasingly larger sums of money for the 26-year-old's story.

In the end it was Tarek's brother, Halid, who in desperation turned to Clifford for help, shortly before the military aircraft carrying the men touched down at RAF Northolt in Middlesex.

It had been a busy week for Britain's best known publicist. He had helped "place" a photograph in a Sunday newspaper of a Leicester City footballer dancing with one of the women who later accused him of rape. And had advisedpop star Bryan McFadden about his exit from boyband Westlife.

Clifford's belated appearance as the mouthpiece for the Dergoul family clearly irritated Christian, who was concerned that the PR man might compromise her legal representation. Nevertheless, Clifford pressed ahead with a round of TV and newspaper interviews in which he claimed that Dergoul's story would include links to Osama bin Laden himself. This incensed Christian, who claims that Clifford's reported comments were shown to Tarek while he was being questioned at Paddington Green police station.

Christian says that while there is no evidence against her client, she is concerned that anti-terrorist officers might have seized upon Clifford's comments. "Tarek was extremely upset," she says: "Having been interviewed 40 times already [at Guantanamo] it was extraordinary that someone who was claiming to represent him was saying that. I think what he did was despicable and evil to try to take advantage of someone who was so vulnerable."

Christian e-mailed and telephoned Clifford to say Dergoul no longer required his services. "But when I rang again he put the phone down on me," says Christian.

But Clifford has said that it was for the family to make that decision, not Christian who he claimed was "making a difficult situation impossible". So far Christian appears to have got her way.

Tarek is still the only one of the five men released from Guantanamo who hasn't sold his story. One of the reasons for this might be his fragile state of mind. His two-year detention and the amputation of one of his arms after "botched" medical treatment has left his family concerned about his mental health. Only now has he started to try to give an account to his family of the "horrific things which happened to him during detention at Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo Bay".

Christian says this includes an account of interrogations at gunpoint, beatings and inhuman conditions. She says: "Tarek finds it very difficult to talk about things and his family believe his mental health has been severely affected by the trauma."

The other four Britons returned from Guantanamo are rumoured to have been paid £100,000 each for selling their stories.

The first to strike a deal with the tabloid media was Jamal al Harith, a 37-year-old divorced father of three from Manchester. He told the Mirror how US soldiers brought in prostitutes to the camp, and paraded them naked in front of devout Muslims.

Two of the so called Titpon Three, Asif Iqbal, 22, and Shafiq Rasul, 26, represented by solicitor Gareth Peirce, chose to sell their stories to The Observer and The Mail on Sunday. The third, Ruhal Ahmed, 22, also took part in the interview with The Observer, but his solicitor Greg Powell does not know if he made any money from it.

All five former detainees are understood to be now considering taking legal action against the US and the UK for breaches of their human rights. If they win they could be in line for compensation.

Central to their case will be the legal status of Guantanamo Bay. The US administration has consistently argued that there is no civil law jurisdiction over the US controlled naval base. But lawyers for the detainees say this creates a legal black hole.

Next month the US supreme court is to hear a case expected to settle the issue. If the court rules in favour of the lawyers representing the foreign-born "enemy combatants" their detention at Camp Delta and the planned military commissions will be subject to review by civil law.

For the five freed British detainees it would mean a chance to fight their case in the US and have any damages determined by the usually generous US jury system - although this might be a double-edged sword as many Americans still regard the British suspects as Taliban collaborators.

Phil Shiner, the lawyer who is representing Iraqi families in their claim against the UK government for the deaths of relatives after the end of the war, says that the Guantanamo case represents "uncharted waters." He argues if his clients can bring a case in this country the Guantanamo five should be allowed to sue in America and possibly even in the UK.

Peter Carter QC, chairman of the Bar's human rights committee, says if the detainees can show collusion between the US and UK administrations over their continued detention then it might be possible to bring a claim under the Human Rights Act in a British court.

"If they can show they were interrogated by British intelligence officers or that the UK was compliant in their continued unlawful detention then they have stronger chance of success," says Carter.

But whatever the releasees decide to do next it seems it will not involve Clifford. Not as long as Christian has anything to do with the case. She promises: "Max Clifford has never met Tarek Dergoul and he never will."