UK scraps inquiry into abuse of terrorism suspects

January 18, 2012 - 9:25 AM

LONDON (AP) — Britain's government-commissioned inquiry into the possible abuse of terrorism suspects during the so-called "war on terror" was scrapped Wednesday, days after police announced a new investigation into the country's spy agencies.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke told the House of Commons that the inquiry — which had already been delayed since 2010 — would no longer take place, but would issue a report on any findings it had made during its preparatory work.

Shortly after winning office, Prime Minister David Cameron asked retired appeal court judge Peter Gibson to carry out a sweeping examination of Britain's conduct in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the investigation was necessary to "clear the stain from our reputation as a country."

Clarke, however, said it was now no longer practical to hold the reckoning, after police last week announced they will investigate claims British intelligence played a role in the alleged torture and rendition of two Libyan men, including Tripoli's military council commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj.

"There now appears no prospect of the Gibson inquiry being able to start in the foreseeable future," Clarke told lawmakers. "We have decided to bring the work of this inquiry to a conclusion."

Gibson's inquiry had already been prevented from beginning a planned series of hearings with ministers and spy chiefs so as not to prejudice an earlier police inquiry into the actions of two British intelligence officers — accused of wrongdoing at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, and in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors announced last week that neither spy would face charges, but said they now planned to investigate the Libyan cases.

Government officials said that would have meant Gibson's hearings would likely be delayed until at least 2014, because any hearings could potentially prejudice the new police investigation which is expected to take several years.

Clarke said that Britain remained "committed to drawing a line under these issues" and hoped to launch a new inquiry in the future.

"The government fully intends to hold a judge-led inquiry into these issues once it is possible to do so and all related police investigations have been concluded," Clarke said.

In 2010, Britain paid millions of pounds (dollars) in settlements to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees who alleged U.K. complicity in their harsh treatment overseas, though the government did not admit any liability.

Several of the ex-detainees, and Belhaj, had already confirmed that they did not plan to cooperate with Gibson because of concern his inquiry lacked teeth.

Rights groups and lawyers had repeatedly complained about Gibson's powers, and that the government, and not the inquiry, would have had the final say on what evidence was made public.

Clare Algar, executive director of civil liberties group Reprieve, said Gibson's inquiry "simply did not have the powers or the independence to get to the truth."

"The inquiry, as established, would not have achieved the government's stated aim of removing the stain on Britain's international reputation. For that reason, it is welcome that the ministers have decided to think again," she said, following Clarke's announcement.

Carla Ferstmann, of the REDRESS campaign group said it was vital a full inquiry is held in the future. "The public has a right to know how these incidents were allowed to happen and what role the government played," she said.

British police are examining allegations made by Belhaj, a former fighter in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant organization that long opposed Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, that both British and U.S. intelligence may have played a role in his 2004 detention in Bangkok and transfer to Tripoli.

Their investigation will also consider claims by Sami al-Saadi, another Libyan who had been opposed to Gadhafi, that Britain's overseas spy agency played a role in his rendition.

Both men allege they were detained, along with their families, as they attempted to fly to Britain.

Documents uncovered during the fall of Tripoli disclosed the cozy working ties between Gadhafi's spies and Western intelligence officials.

Gibson said that his panel had examined hundreds of documents from Britain's spy agencies and would now offer the government an initial assessment on the country's pursuit of terrorism suspects.

A report would highlight "themes which might be subject to further examination," Gibson said.