LONDON (Reuters) - The defence minister made an unusual public apology on Thursday, admitting Britain had taken part in the “rendition” of suspects detained in Iraq after denying it for years.
In a lengthy statement to parliament, Defence Secretary John Hutton confirmed that Britain handed over two suspects captured in Iraq in 2004 to U.S. custody and that they were subsequently transferred to Afghanistan, breaching U.S.-British agreements.
The Ministry of Defence has been repeatedly asked over the past five years about its involvement in rendition, the unlawful transfer of suspects to a third country, and consistently denied it played any role in the U.S.-administered programme.
“I regret that it is now clear that inaccurate information on this particular issue has been given to the House by my department on a small number of occasions,” Hutton said. “I want to apologise to the House for these errors.”
Two men seized by British troops in Iraq in February 2004 were transferred to U.S. detention and later flown to Afghanistan, where they remain in U.S. custody. Both are said to be members of Laskhar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group with links to al Qaeda.
Human rights groups said Hutton’s admission amounted to a “major U-turn” that called into question the government’s previous denials and whether its position now was believable.
“For years now the British government has been tossing us miserable scraps of information about its involvement in illegal renditions in Pakistan, Diego Garcia and now Afghanistan,” said Clara Gutteridge, an investigator with Reprieve, a charity that campaigns for the release of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
“Enough is enough. The British government must come clean and reveal exactly who it has captured, what has been done to them and where they are now,” she said. “I’m afraid this is only the tip of the renditions iceberg.”
Hutton said the United States had provided assurances that the suspects, who are categorised as “unlawful enemy combatants,” were being properly treated in Afghanistan.
Asked about the legal implications of Hutton’s apology, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said there was nothing illegal about Britain’s involvement in the rendition process.
The Americans, he said, had breached a long-standing agreement that those captured by British forces in Iraq would not be transferred out of Iraq without prior consultation.
“We are all equally culpable in this,” he said.
However, human rights lawyers and members of parliament suggested the Ministry of Defence was trying to play down the extent of the problem, and said there were no guarantees that Britain had not been complicit in illegal renditions.
Extraordinary rendition, which involves transferring suspects to a third country where there is no prohibition on the use of torture during interrogation, goes a step further than rendition and is considered illegal by Britain.
Andrew Tyrie, an MP looking into extraordinary rendition, said it was time the government held a full inquiry.
“U.S. assurances that it does not use torture are unreliable,” he said. “Given that all previous assurances have been baseless, we can have no confidence in the ones we are being given now.”
Editing by Andrew Roche