MoD 'did not want to breach privacy of detainee'

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The Independent Online

The Government misled MPs over Britain’s role in the rendition of two men arrested by the UK and then imprisoned by the Americans for five years in Afghanistan, it is claimed today.

Ministers are also accused of conspiring in the men’s unlawful imprisonment by refusing to disclose their identities and providing false information about the allegations against them.

The Ministry of Defence wrote to the law charity Reprieve, saying that the two terror suspects captured by British forces in Iraq in 2004 could not be identified because it would be a breach of their rights under the Data Protection Act.

But a six-month investigation by Reprieve has identified one of the men, a Pakistani, and found evidence of his unlawful detention and possible torture.

Reprieve also alleges that the British government has taken no steps over the past five years to ensure that they receive legal assistance.

In February this year the former Defence Secretary, John Hutton, admitted that UK forces had captured two men in Iraq in February 2004, and handed them to US forces. In subsequent statements to parliament, the government revealed that in March 2004, British officials had become aware of the US intention to transfer the men from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Reprieve says that Mr Hutton’s statement misled Parliament because ministers must have know that neither of the men could have been members of the Sunni extremist group they are accused of working for as both are Shia Muslims.

Mr Hutton also said that the men were taken to Afghanistan so that they could be interviewed using interpreters who spoke their own language. But Reprieve rejects this arguing that it was used as a pretext to rendition and claims that both men spoke Arabic and could have been interviewed in Iraq.

Reprieve has now tracked down the men still held unlawfully in the notorious Bagram prison.

One of them is Amanatullah Ali, who comes from a small village in the Pakistani Punjab. In his limited, and censored communications with his family he has told his family that he was at first detained by the British, rather than the Americans; he has asked them to pray for his safe return, and to get him help.

A spokesman for Reprieve said: "We have not been able to positively identify the second man, although our interviews with other released Bagram prisoners have gleaned some facts about him. He is apparently known as “Salahuddin”. Significantly, he was brought up in the Gulf states (where the primary language is Arabic). "Salahuddin" has not been able to contact his family or even reassure them that he is alive."

Reprieve has been told by a number of different sources that as a result of his abuse in UK and US custody he has suffered mentally and physically. The group claims: "Salahuddin is in catastrophic mental and physical shape, and now spends most of his time in the mental health cells at Bagram."

This year the Government said that “[t]he individuals transferred to Afghanistan are members of Lashkar e Tayyiba [LeT], a proscribed organisation with links to al-Qaeda.” In fact, says Reprieve, Mr Amanatullah Ali is a Shia rice merchant, whose family owns a small landholding in the Pakistani Punjab. LeT is a Sunni extremist group that views all Shia as heretics, and that is currently conducting a violent campaign in the Punjab to dispossess Shia landholders such as Mr Amanatullah Ali.

"It is inconceivable that Mr Amanatullah Ali could be a member of LeT. Amanatullah's family report that far from being a terrorist, Mr Amanatullah crossed from Iran (where he was negotiating the sale of rice) into Iraq in February 2004 to do what many Shia Muslims long to do – to visit the shrines of the faith during the holy month of Muharram," adds Reprieve.

In February 2009, after years of government denials that the UK had been involved in any rendition operations, Mr Hutton announced to parliament that UK forces had captured two men in Iraq in February 2004, and handed them to the US. In subsequent statements to parliament, the government revealed that in March 2004, British officials had become aware of the US intention to transfer the men from Iraq to Afghanistan.

At the time the Government claimed that “the detainees are held in a humane, safe and secure environment meeting international standards which are consistent with cultural and religious norms and the ICRC has had regular access to the detainees.”

But Reprieve counters: "If the Americans have not even managed to work out that Mr Amanatullah Ali is a Shia, it is implausible to suggest that his treatment is consistent with “religious norms” – since Shia norms are very different from Sunni norms. And if the Americans have recognised his religious faith, then they possess strong evidence of his innocence of being a member of LeT, and should free him. All these matters show the importance of securing independent legal representation for him."

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The operation referred to by John Hutton in his February statement was directly related to threats to security and stability in Iraq. The individuals detained in this operation were members of Lashkar e Tayyiba and were a significant threat to the lives of Iraqi civilians and to coalition forces. Their initial detention was appropriate, legitimate and targeted at saving lives.”