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UK High Court demands U.S. torture documents

LONDON — The chief justice of the British High Court on Wednesday gave the British government one week to obtain the U.S. release of classified information about the alleged torture of a British resident who'd been detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The court indicated that it would issue its own order if the government doesn't respond or justify why continued secrecy is warranted.

Noting that President Barack Obama had released highly sensitive documents tracing the decisions on torture during the Bush administration's war on terror, the high court judges voiced exasperation that the British government hasn't acted in what they said was the British public interest in being similarly open.

The hearing illustrated how Obama's decision to be more transparent about his predecessor's detainee policies is having ripple effects abroad, but it also threw the ball back to the Obama administration to approve release of the contested information.

The White House said it had no comment yesterday.

Lord Justice John Thomas scolded Britain's Foreign Office for not directly seeking clarification of the new U.S. administration's policy on the release of classified documents in the case of Binyam Mohamed, who was returned to Britain in February after seven years of detention in several countries, including four years in the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Noting the change of tone between the Bush and Obama administrations, Lord Thomas said It was "self-evident as he (Obama) became president that he was going to take a different view" from the Bush administration on issues of torture and detention.

He noted that the U.S. president's recent statements on the need for transparency and the public interest in treatment of detainees were similar to views he himself expressed in writing a few months ago. Although Obama had said it more "elegantly and shortly", Lord Thomas noted, "the message is, I think, the same."

The justice upbraided the Foreign Office lawyer, Pushpinder Saini, for saying that the Obama administration viewed the release of information in Mohamed's case as a threat to the U.S.-British intelligence sharing, as the Bush administration had clearly done. "It is inconceivable that they could have hurt the intelligence-sharing relationship," the chief justice said.

"No one's ever asked the question" of the Obama administration about release of the information regarding Mohamed's detention, Lord Thomas said, and Saini sheepishly agreed.

Mohamed originally was charged with involvement in an alleged al Qaida bomb plot after he was arrested in Pakistan, but the U.S. later dropped all charges. Mohamed's lawyers say he was severely tortured in detention and that British intelligence officers were complicit in his interrogation.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Mohamed suggested that the Obama administration shared the blame for uncertainty over the case, saying it had been intentionally vague about the release of classified documents regarding Mohamed's treatment in captivity

"One has to admire the care with which diplomats speak," attorney Dinah Rose said, referring to Foreign Office officials. "It suited them not to ask, just as it suited the Obama administration not to answer."

Since Mohamed filed suit in Britain seeking the release of information about his detention, the Foreign Office has repeatedly resisted allowing even a summary of certain classified documents to be made public. Foreign Secretary David Miliband has cited explicit warnings from Bush administration officials who said the British-American intelligence-sharing relationship could be jeopardized if classified information were released.

The only public statement from the new U.S. administration thus far regarding Mohamed's case was issued by the National Security Council, which earlier this year thanked Britain for its continued cooperation in intelligence sharing.

The Foreign Office's assumption, its lawyer said, was that the official U.S. position on the documents hadn't changed — at least until Obama released the torture memos last week.

A lawyer who represented Mohamed during his detention at Guantanamo Bay was more stinging in his criticism.

"By making deliberately vague public statements, David Miliband and the Obama administration have tried to spin their way out of serious trouble, said Clive Stafford-Smith, founder of the legal-aid charity Reprieve, which also represents other detainees still held at Guantanamo Bay. "Such evasive tactics have no place at the British High Court."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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