Tony Blair was alerted to allegations of torture involving UK nationals held in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay within months of the "War on Terror" beginning, lawyers claimed yesterday.
A secret letter on the subject of British detainees, sent from the Foreign Office to the Prime Minister's Office on 18 January 2002 and made public by the High Court for the first time yesterday, bears handwritten comments that solicitors said were made by Mr Blair.
The comments written at the end of the memo, which was sent just a week after Guantanamo Bay opened on 11 January, express concern about claims of torture and state that it should be spelled out to the US that "any such action would be totally unacceptable".
The document emerged as part of the bid by six former detainees to sue the British Government, claiming it was complicit in their ill-treatment.
The High Court ordered last July that any documents held by government departments and the security services on the issue should be disclosed for the legal proceedings, unless disclosure endangered national security.
The letter, entitled "UK Nationals Held in Afghanistan and Guantanamo", has one whole paragraph redacted.
It was sent by the Foreign Office in response to a request from Downing Street for "a round-up of the latest position". It included a chart listing detainees who might be British.
The person to whom the letter is addressed is blanked out in the released copy, but lawyers for the former detainees say the handwritten remarks that appear at the bottom of the typed document appear to come from Mr Blair. The comment reads: "The key is to find out how they are being treated. Though I was initially sceptical about claims of torture, we must make it clear to the US that any such action would be totally unacceptable and very quickly establish it isn't happening."
The six men claiming compensation – Binyam Mohamed, Bisher Al Rawi, Jamil El Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, and Martin Mubanga – deny any involvement in terrorism and allege that MI5 and MI6 were guilty of aiding and abetting their unlawful imprisonment and extraordinary rendition to various locations, including Guantanamo, where they were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and torture.
Their claims are denied by the intelligence services and by the Attorney General, the Foreign Office and the Home Office.
Also among the documents released yesterday was a six-page memo by Tom McKane, a senior official attached to the Cabinet Office, which was sent to Mr Blair's senior foreign policy adviser in January 2002.
The memo lists three British citizens who were being held in Afghanistan and states that each was "possibly being tortured in part 3 jail Kabul," The Guardian reported.
Mr McKane's memo also said that MI5 and MI6 had started to question detainees in Afghanistan, noting: "The US has begun transferring detainees they are holding in Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. We have raised no objection in principle to the transfer of UK nationals."
Lawyers for the former detainees asked Mr Justice Silber, sitting at the High Court, to ensure that further secret documents be disclosed to the court without delay in accordance with the disclosure orders he had made in July.
Richard Hermer QC said there had also been a "deeply troubling" failure by the security services and government departments to answer questions that went to the heart of the case.
Jonathan Crow QC, appearing for the security services, said it was difficult and time-consuming to get the documents collated and then vetted to ensure no details that could harm national security were released.