Leading article: A victory for openness

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The Independent Online

It was a bit rich for the Foreign Secretary to tell the Commons yesterday that the victory for Binyam Mohamed at the Appeal Court demonstrated that the justice system "worked".

If we are not mistaken, it was the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who had insisted on pursuing the case to this point, and he did so in order to prevent the very outcome that the judges facilitated yesterday. The system worked, and thank goodness it did, but it worked to the benefit of Mr Mohamed and, more generally, the cause of openness and government accountability.

Lawyers for Mr Miliband had fought tooth and nail to prevent these paragraphs seeing the light of day. Disclosure, they argued, risked jeopardising the UK's prized intelligence cooperation with the United States, under which shared information remains confidential.

In ruling that the paragraphs describing Mr Mohamed's treatment in secret prisons should be disclosed, the court said that, in principle, "a real risk of serious damage to national security, of whatever degree, should not automatically trump a public interest in open justice...". In other words, no government could cite national security as a catch-all to keep inconvenient information confidential, even if that information had been obtained under a sharing arrangement of which confidentiality was a condition.

The Government's case raised several further questions. Were fears for the future of intelligence-sharing with the US really at the heart of it – especially after President Obama ordered the declassification of many documents relating to the mistreatment of terrorist suspects? Or was that argument a cover for something else – something, perhaps, like not wanting anyone to find out how much the British government really knew about the treatment of Mr Mohamed (and perhaps others, too).

The nub of this is that British ministers and the security services have always insisted that they were at no time complicit in torture. What has now emerged is that, torture or not, the treatment meted out to Binyam Mohamed at the hands of the CIA breached British undertakings going back more than 30 years, and – crucially – British officials knew that.

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