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November 16, 2010

British Government to Pay 16 Torture Victims

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Showing at least a model of what accountability can look like, the British government will pay reparations to victims of torture at Guantanamo Bay, to absolve British intelligence services of their role.

The development came only weeks after Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, Britain’s overseas spy agency, insisted that his operatives did not use or collude in torture. But he defended the organization’s insistence on secrecy. Sir John called torture “illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it.”

British media reports said Tuesday that the compensation would total several million dollars to settle court actions brought by former detainees at the American prison at Guantánamo who are either British citizens or residents.

A government statement, carried on the Press Association news agency, said Prime Minister David Cameron had already said “that we need to deal with the totally unsatisfactory situation where for the past few years, the reputation of our security services has been overshadowed by allegations about their involvement in the treatment of detainees held by other countries.”

One of the detainees scheduled for a payout is still at Guantanamo, but is expected to be returned to Britain shortly.

I’d prefer someone, anyone who authorized illegal torture went to jail. But we haven’t even seen a hint of accountability for anyone but the Lynndie Englands of the world on this issue. And even a small acknowledgement of the wrongdoing stands as an acknowledgement, and even possibly a deterrent. The $1.2 billion in reparations made to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II hardly bankrupted the US government in the 1980s. But it forced a national government to make clear that the policy was wrong and worthy of recompense. I’m hardly suggesting that internment will never happen again just because of a financial payout. But there is a stigma that gets attached to that acknowledgement, something we have certainly not had in this country with respect to torture.

Mind you, the British are not only paying off the victims to wipe this away. David Cameron announced an independent investigation into the role of British intelligence in torture and rendition back in July. Sir Peter Gibson will take up the review. The government has already had to release 50,000 documents detailing the captivity and treatment of Binyam Mohamed, who was rendered to Morocco and tortured.

The Guardian today called the payments the “first step to ending the legacy of torture.” It’s a hell of a lot more than we’ve seen elsewhere in the world to that end. And it’s quite a contrast between how the British Conservatives, who inherited this issue from the Labour government, are dealing with it, compared to the Obama Administration, who inherited it from George W. Bush. One actually seems to be grappling with “detainee legacy issues,” setting up multiple inquiries, paying 16 victims of torture, making public statements, releasing documents. The other, helped along by a court system showing much deference to the executive on state secrets issues, has sought to cover it up.

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