Ministers: We did not know about US torture

Miliband and Johnson seek to distance UK from complicity in abuse of terror suspect
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Two senior cabinet ministers have blamed the United States for Britain's involvement in the torture of terror suspect Binyam Mohamed.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, said that the British Government was unaware that after 11 September the Bush administration had decided on a policy of torture and rendition in its "war on terror".

In a letter published in The Independent and other newspapers today, Mr Miliband and Mr Johnson defend the security and intelligence services in the wake of revelations that MI5 colluded in the CIA's torture of Mr Mohamed, a British resident.

Mr Mohamed, 31, an Ethiopian granted refugee status in Britain in 1994, claimed he was tortured while being held in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco and Guantanamo Bay. He also alleges Britain was complicit in that torture by sending an MI5 agent to interrogate him while he was in US custody in Pakistan.

On Wednesday, it emerged that High Court judges who had seen CIA reports of Mr Mohamed's treatment believed he had been tortured and that Britain had known about it. Mr Miliband had hoped to keep the information secret, because he felt its publication threatened the intelligence-sharing relationship between the two countries.

But today Mr Miliband, who has responsibility for MI6, says in his joint letter with Mr Johnson, who has responsibility for MI5: "It appears that after 9/11 the US authorities changed the rules of engagement for their staff in the fight against international terrorism. When this became clear to us, Agency guidance to our own staff was changed to make clear their responsibilities, not just to avoid any involvement or complicity in unacceptable practice, but also to report on them."

The ministers also reject unpublished judicial criticism of MI5, featured in the draft judgment in Mr Mohamed's case, which characterised the security service as being out of control. They say: "The allegation that our security and intelligence agencies have license to collude in torture is disgraceful, untrue and one that we vigorously deny. The Government's clear policy is not to participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment for any purpose."

After the ruling, the White House said it was "deeply disappointed" with the court's decision to publish the seven paragraphs which it said would "complicate the confidentiality of our intelligence-sharing relationship with the UK."

Last night, human rights groups and MPs said the Government's attempt to "pass the buck" on torture raised more questions than it answered.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "This begs a large number of questions about exactly how the Americans' approach changed after 9/11. We need to know exactly when British ministers were told when the guidance was changed. We have to be told, as well, how many other people suffered similar treatment to Binyam Mohamed."

Mr Mohamed's lawyer Clive Stafford Smith said: "The Foreign Secretary's statement about Binyam Mohamed's ordeal is inconsistent with the facts that emerged in court on Wednesday. Specifically, a key paragraph made it clear that SyS [the Security Services] knew of Binyam's abuse while it was going on. The Foreign Secretary's letter suggests that, in this situation, a whistle ought to have been blown. No whistle was blown; rather, SyS continued to feed questions to Binyam's torturers."

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: "The point here is not what the US may or may not have done over changing their 'rules of engagement' in combating terrorism, but the fact that there is an absolute prohibition against torture. This rule has never changed."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights group Liberty, said: "It's too late for vague platitudes about 'not condoning' torture and time for the guidance that was in place immediately after 9/11 to be published and examined by a judge-led inquiry."

Mr Miliband told the House of Commons the ruling was leading to a "great deal of concern" in the US. In a statement to MPs, he said he had fought to prevent the release of the information to defend the "fundamental" principle that intelligence shared with the UK would be protected. This "control principle" was essential to the relationship between the UK and the US, he added. Mr Miliband also said he had spoken with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the case.