LONDON — Britain’s agreement to pay hefty settlements to former Guantanamo detainees who accused the government of complicity in their torture averts a protracted legal battle that could have compromised national security and disclosed sensitive U.S. intelligence.
The agreement, which came after months of legal wrangling, was a first official step toward distancing Britain from the interrogation tactics sanctioned by President George W. Bush during the U.S.-led war on terror.
The payout could prompt other former detainees to push for compensation in U.S. courts and elsewhere — even though Britain admitted no guilt.
Justice Secretary Ken Clark did not disclose the size of the settlement or who was involved, saying in his announcement to parliament Tuesday there was a binding confidentiality clause.
However, a British lawyer with knowledge of the terms told The Associated Press that at least seven former detainees — all British citizens or residents — would receive payments and one man would receive more than $1.6 million (1 million pounds).
British spies were not accused of torturing detainees themselves, but former detainees alleged that British security services violated international law by knowing about the abuse and doing nothing to stop it.
Speaking to the House of Commons, Clarke said the government had not admitted any “culpability” in the settlement and the plaintiffs had not withdrawn their allegations.
“The alternative to any payments made would have been protracted and extremely expensive litigation,” Clarke said, adding that the government could not be certain it could “defend the security and intelligence agencies without compromising national security.”
Britain’s spy agencies welcomed the settlement, saying open testimony from secret agents could have jeopardized intelligence-gathering. In a joint statement, Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, and its overseas intelligence service, MI6, said the settlement would allow them “to concentrate on protecting national security.”
The settlement marks a further break by Britain with U.S. policies — both past and present.
“This is the first instance in which victims of the Bush administration’s rendition program have received government compensation of any kind,” said Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, a U.S.-based think tank.
“It underscores the merits of the victims’ claims and the lengths to which governments are willing to go to avoid judicial scrutiny and the airing of the truth relating to the CIA-driven rendition program,” she said.
Britain has long opposed some of the interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration during the campaign against terror after the 9/11 attacks, saying they can produce false information as suspects eventually say anything to make the abuse stop.