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Tuesday, November 16, 2010 

A payout which leaves overall justice the loser.

In one way, the announcement of the engagement of two of our social betters and the compensation payouts to the former Guantanamo detainees is a happier coincidence than it first seems. Shoving the news way down the agenda as it does, far below where it should deservedly be, will also undoubtedly mean that the deal won't come in for the same crushing criticism as it almost certainly would have done from those who still continue to believe that either the security services did nothing wrong or that those who ended up in Guantanamo were "bad men" that had it coming to them.

This version of events will be encouraged by how at the pains the coalition government has been to point out that even while paying out millions of pounds to those it previously believed to be terrorists it has accepted no culpability whatsoever for what happened to them while in the custody of foreign governments. Such a detail is however just a part of the deal which has obviously been struck to protect both embarrassment and the possible prosecution of past ministers and intelligence assets. The government ensures that the files of MI5 and 6 stay firmly closed to anyone other than the very highly vetted establishment figures who are trusted to keep the criticism, if any, to the bare minimum, while the former detainees, remunerated somewhat for the mistreatment and illegality they were subjected to say no more, even if they don't withdraw their allegations, and can't boast of how much they were able to wrangle from those who may well still remain their ideological enemies.

This was the only way the case pursued by the former detainees was ever going to conclude following the ruling earlier in the year by the Court of Appeal which overturned a previous judgement that the government could use secret evidence in civil cases, with the plaintiffs represented by special advocates as in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission system. The terrifying implications of the ruling for any government and especially for the security services were laid bare just two months later when the contents of just a few of the possible 500,000 documents relating to the men were published, showing that both Tony Blair and Jack Straw had been personally involved in the process which resulted in detainees either being denied consular access or sent to Guantanamo, while the transcripts of the interrogations of Omar Deghayes by MI5 agents made clear the sort of contempt with which those suspected of involvement in terrorism were being treated at the time, regardless of their British residency or nationality. The washing of the security services' dirty laundry in public was never going to be acceptable to a government of any colour or political persuasion, especially of a nation which has long prized its draconian secrecy laws, often for very apparent reasons.

It is no exaggeration to state that some of the documents which could have been released as a result may have altered for a generation the relatively benign view most have of our intelligence agencies. Despite repeated and fierce attempts, lately by their newest and relatively untainted heads to make clear their revulsion for mistreatment and torture, the drip-drip effect of the allegations against them has as David Cameron himself said began to affect "[O]ur reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law – indeed, much of what the services exist to protect". Add into this the cost and the potentially unending nature of the litigation which would have followed as ever more documents were declassified and the potentially lurid details piled up, with the corresponding damage to our reputation continuing to mount, and the shelling out of the millions now was all but inevitable.

The only real losers in all of this are then ourselves. It's impossible to begrudge or question the detainees for deciding to settle, not least as they deserve all that they've been paid out and without doubt far more besides. As the Guardian reports and Andy Worthington alludes to, while some have been able to return somewhat to normal life since their release, others are still unable to move beyond both the mental and physical affects their detention has had on them. Intriguingly, one of those who has settled is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still to be held at Guantanamo, which is suggestive to say the least of the few remaining hurdles in the way of his release being surmounted. Aamer is not only one of the known "leaders" at the camp, having been involved in negotiations at the camp which were meant to lead to the effective recognising of the detainees' rights under the Geneva Convention, but has also made allegations that the 3 detainees who the US said committed suicide in 2006 in what was described at the time as an act of "asymmetric warfare" in fact died as a result of injuries inflicted whilst they were being interrogated.

No, we're the losers and justice also is because it's almost certain that now the full truth will never be known, or at least won't be for a very long time. While the long-awaited and long-called for judicial inquiry into allegations of collusion in torture and rendition is a step closer, it's also apparent that the terms of reference of that inquiry, unlikely to provide a narrative of how the situation came about where British residents and citizens considered to be "terrorist suspects" were either left without representation or to their fate, or in the very worst cases, actively handed over to their abusers will be relatively limited, especially if it is to deal only with the allegations made by those who have now settled with the government. We also know that most of it is likely to be held behind closed doors, and if the end report is anything like the ones produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee, heavily redacted. The fragments of documents released, even though they were also censored, allowed us to see into the dealings of the secret state as almost never before, and they showed us exactly why successive governments have fought to keep them locked away. They threatened to show the security services' dealings as they were, without even the slightest varnish, as only they, ministers and those given the special clearance are allowed to. That, simply, could never be allowed and will most likely never be repeated.

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