LONDON — Britain has asked the U.S. for the immediate release of a former British resident who's now on a hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, and the Obama administration has agreed to a "priority" review, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Wednesday.
The furor in Britain has put the Obama administration in an awkward position. President Barack Obama ordered a review of the more than 200 detainees still being held at Guantanamo within days of his inauguration three weeks ago, but he has yet to create a mechanism for releasing them.
Miliband said the Obama administration had yet to decide on the case of Binyam Mohamed, but he said that Britain and the U.S. would continue to work together "to achieve a swift resolution."
Mohamed's case has become a major embarrassment to the British government. He alleged that he'd been tortured in Morocco at the behest of the U.S. government, with U.S. and British intelligence officials taking part in the interrogations.
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Attorneys for Mohamed have said that classified U.S. documents prove that he was tortured and demonstrated British complicity in the process. The British government has said it was unable to release the documents after the U.S. warned that any such action would jeopardize intelligence sharing between the two countries.
The White House on Wednesday refused to discuss Mohamed's prospects for release. A senior administration official confirmed that the U.S. was talking to British officials about Mohamed's status and "have greatly appreciated the efforts of our British allies." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the case.
"We are working as fast and hard as we can to secure Mr. Mohamed's release from Guantanamo and return to the U.K.," Miliband said in his statement. "Following our representations, the U.S. administration have now agreed that Mr. Mohamed's case should be treated as a priority in this process. We continue to work with the U.S. to achieve a swift resolution."
Miliband issued his statement after meeting Mohamed's lawyer, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley. He also said the U.S. government agreed to let a British delegation visit Mohamed "as soon as possible." A police doctor will be part of the delegation to assess Mohamed's health and fitness to travel.
Bradley told a parliamentary committee that she understands Mohamed's case is now "number one, will be on top, will be the first case for expedited review" by the Obama administration, which has pledged to close Guantanamo.
Bradley, who's in London this week pressing British politicians to demand her client's immediate release, said that he's been on a hunger strike since Dec. 29 and is being force-fed along with other inmates. When she saw Mohamed two weeks ago, "His arms were thin as twigs," she said. If he isn't released soon, Bradley said, she fears that he'll leave Guantanamo either "insane" or "in a coffin."
Mohamed, who was born in Ethiopia, reportedly underwent training at an al Qaida camp.
He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 while trying to board a plane for London. American officials claimed that he'd been recruited by al Qaida and was involved in a conspiracy to launch attacks in the U.S. Mohamed has charged that he was held in several countries between 2002 and 2004 — including Pakistan and Morocco, where he said he was tortured — before he was sent to Guantanamo in 2004.
At a day of media events Wednesday, another member of Mohamed's legal team, Clive Stafford Smith, who's also the director of the human-rights group Reprieve, charged that there's a "conspiracy" among governments to cover up the truth.
David Davis, a Conservative member of Parliament, told reporters that earlier this week that he gave British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith — whose department is responsible for the security services — "an opportunity to deny complicity" by British intelligence officers in Mohamed's torture and interrogation. "She did not take that opportunity, it was very much a non-denial," he said.
Thanks in large part to the lobbying of Bradley and Stafford Smith on Mohamed's behalf, several parliamentary committees are probing aspects of the case. Late Tuesday, a joint committee on human rights asked Miliband, Smith and Britain's attorney general to respond by the end of next week with answers to questions about their department's handling of the Mohamed case.
It appeared that the Obama administration, which has promised openness on issues such as Guantanamo, hadn't yet agreed to release the documents in the Mohamed case that his attorneys — and the British High Court — said pertain to his torture.
Asked by McClatchy if the Obama administration was reconsidering, a Foreign Office spokesman replied: "There is no reason to think that the U.S. will have changed its position. The (National Security Council) released a statement immediately following the Court's last judgment, thanking us for our continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that exists between our countries."
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent. Talev reported from Washington.)
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