London Court Rules U.S. Must Release Pakistani Prisoner From Bagram

Lawyers and human rights activists here are successfully turning to the courts to staunch the erosion of civil liberties released by the Bush Administration's war on terror

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A U.S. soldier walks above prison cells at the detention centre at the U.S. Bagram Air Base/ Reuters

LONDON, UK -- Civil liberties advocates have chalked up a surprising victory in what is tantamount to their war on America's war on terrorism.

Yesterday, a three-judge court here ruled unanimously that a Pakistani man who was captured in Iraq by British forces, who then turned him over to the Americans, must be released from Bagram prison, where the Americans have held him without charges since 2004. For six years, the prisoner, Yunus Rahmatullah, who was picked up at the age of 22, was held incommunicado -- unable to contact his family, let alone a lawyer -- until the human rights organization Reprieve took up his case.

Reprieve described the court's decision as "historic." It is "the first time that any civilian legal system has penetrated Bagram, a legal black hole," Cori Crider, the Reprieve lawyer who handled the case, told me. "Lawyers have never been allowed in the prison, which is notorious for torture and homicides and has been called 'Guantanamo's Evil Twin.'"

In a deviation from the dry, legal language that marks the opinion, even the judges described Bagram as "a place said to be notorious for human rights abuses."

As in the United States, lawyers and human rights activists here have successfully turned to the courts to staunch the erosion of civil liberties released by the Bush Administration's war on terror, which the Blair government joined. While the British government steadfastly denied that it had ever been complicit in the American program of extraordinary rendition--under which terrorist suspects were secretly spirited away, bound and gagged, to third countries where they were tortured--court cases have shown otherwise.

In perhaps the most notorious case, Reprieve, representing Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohammed, sued the British government to obtain documents showing that Binyam, a British citizen, had been tortured (including having his genitals sliced with a razor) while in Morocco, before being transferred to Guantanamo. Binyam was seized in Pakistan, where the Americans alleged he was plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States. The British Government fought hard in the courts to avoid releasing any documents, arguing that to do so would harm relations with the United States. The Obama Administration even went so far to argue that if the judges ordered the release of the documents, the United States might discontinue sharing intelligence with Britain.

The judges weren't cowed. Ultimately, Reprieve prevailed, securing Binyam's release without any charges ever being filed against him.

Along with several other former Guantanamo prisoners, Binyam sued here for damages arising out of their imprisonment, arguing that the British Government had been complicit. The men were represented by lawyers from several private firms. The government settled the cases for undisclosed amounts of money, but thought to be substantial.

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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