An American court has cleared the way for two British residents released from Guantanamo Bay to sue a subsidiary of the international aviation company Boeing over complicity in their rendition.
The decision is a blow for the Obama administration which had used state secrecy laws to block the case against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc, a US company based in California. Two British residents released from Guantanamo, Binyam Mohamed and Bisher al-Rawi, are among those who claim they were tortured and unlawfully held by the US Government.
The lawsuit alleges that Jeppesen knowingly provided extensive flight services that enabled the CIA to carry out the renditions.
The US government sought to intervene in the case and asserted “state secrets privilege” on behalf of itself and Jeppesen. Under US constitutional law, the government can claim state secrets privilege when “there is a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged”.
But today a US Federal Court rejected this defence and instructed the District Court to proceed with the case.
Lawyers for Mr Mohamed - and four others including British ex-prisoner Bisher al-Rawi - began legal action against Jeppesen in 2007 for its alleged role in the illegal transfer of prisoners between secret overseas detention centres. The company is said to have supplied crucial logistical support and to have profited from a lucrative contract in transporting prisoners.
The Bush Administration had applied to get the case thrown out on the grounds that, by exposing details of the US renditions programme, the case would jeopardise national security. To the disappointment of human rights supporters, the Obama administration took the same view.
Although the District Court accepted this argument, the Appeals Court today reversed their decision, stating that it is not acceptable to throw out an entire case for national security reasons. Rather, Judge Hawkins states that each piece of evidence must be weighed separately as to the ‘danger’ it would pose if made public. The case may then proceed with whatever evidence is safe to be revealed.
Mr Mohamed, a 30-year-old Ethiopian refugee who lives in the UK, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 as he tried to fly back to London.
He was flown to Morocco where he was subjected to "severe physical and psychological torture", it is alleged.
His torture claims include routine beatings leading to broken bones, having his penis slashed with a scalpel and having hot liquids poured into open wounds.
He was then transferred to a CIA prison in Afghanistan where he was subjected to further abuse, it is alleged. Mr Mohamed was eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay where he remained for nearly five years before being released and returned to the UK.
"This is a tremendous step forward in the battle to stop corporations making money from the rendition, torture and suffering of the prisoners we represent," said Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve.
“Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi and perhaps many others, are one step closer to making the CEOs of these companies stop and think before they commit criminal acts for profit."
Renditions investigator Clara Gutteridge said: “It is a relief that the United States courts are finally taking these torture claims seriously. However, we are only beginning to uncover the truth of exactly how these torture flights were allowed to happen. It is inconceivable that Jeppesen acted alone. People in the highest echelons of the US - and in some cases the UK - governments have authorised illegal rendition flights and must also be held accountable.”