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Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - 8:36am

U.K. Agrees To Settle With Ex-Guantanamo Detainees

Britain has agreed to settle lawsuits by about a dozen former Guantanamo Bay detainees who accused intelligence agencies of colluding in their torture and rendition -- reportedly one of the first big pay-outs stemming from the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

After months of legal wrangling, Britain's spy agencies chose to settle the lawsuit to avoid a pricey and prolonged court case in which open testimony from secret agents could have jeopardized national security, a British government official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Tuesday.

The men are all British citizens or residents who were held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba.

At least seven former detainees would receive payments and at least one man would receive more than one million pounds (US$1.6 million), according to a second source who has seen details of the weekend settlement and spoke on condition of anonymity because lawyers agreed that the details would be kept confidential.

British spies have not been accused of torturing detainees and have consistently denied being complicit in torture. But at least 6 of the men say they were mistreated before arriving at Guantanamo, and that the U.K. knew about it and should have stopped it.

Prime Minister David Cameron offered to hold compensation talks after British courts ruled that the government could not withhold secret evidence and that the allegations had to be heard in public.

One of the former detainees who agreed to settle is Binyam Mohammed. His lawyer, Sapna Malik, explained why.

"These were not simple cases -- they were likely to have taken years of litigation," she said. "The government was also considering passing legislation which would have made the trial of the cases secret."

Allegations of torture and abuse have been widespread among many Guantanamo detainees who were held in Afghanistan and other countries before being sent to the US prison camp in Cuba.

But the most detailed account of abuse came from Mohamed, who alleged that Britain was aware that the CIA sent him to be interrogated in Morocco, where his genitals were sliced with a scalpel.

Before he was returned to Britain from the U.S. prison camp, lawyers for Mohamed sued in the British courts for intelligence transcripts to prove Britain knew he was being abused and that any evidence U.S. officials had was tainted.

A British court ruled that Mohamed was subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" by U.S. authorities and ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on the treatment of Mohamed.

Under long-standing conventions, nations don't disclose intelligence shared by their allies, and the court's ruling drove a wedge between U.S. and British intelligence officials. It also raised questions on the sanctity of intelligence sharing agreements if courts would be able to expose private exchanges in the future.

The payout now also raises the question of whether other detainees outside of Britain could look to the settlement as a way of pushing pending lawsuits forward even if the British government has made no admission of guilt.

"It does send out a very strong signal and it is going to cause difficulties with other countries, particularly the United States," said human rights lawyer Philippe Sands.

The case is thought to be one of the first bulk pay-outs to former Guantanamo detainees.

The settlement paves the way for a planned independent inquiry which is due to examine how much the government knew about the treatment of detainees by allies.

Retired judge Peter Gibson will lead the investigation after police conclude criminal inquiries into the actions of two specific intelligence officers.

Police are investigating whether an officer with domestic spy agency MI5 is guilty of criminal wrongdoing over the alleged torture of an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee. In a separate case, the actions of an officer with overseas intelligence service MI6 are also being investigated.

Larry Miller reported for NPR from London for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]