London - Contradicting previous denials about Britain's participation in the Bush administration's global war on terrorism, Defense Minister John Hutton said Thursday that Britain had handed over two terrorism suspects it captured in Iraq to the U.S., which sent them to Afghanistan, where they're still being held after more than four years.
The men, thought to be Pakistani nationals, are members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani Islamist group with links to al Qaida, and have been classified as "unlawful enemy combatants," Hutton said.
His disclosure contradicts past claims by the British government that it was never complicit in the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which detainees are sent to third countries, including some in which torture is commonplace.
The revelation sparked criticism from opposition politicians and civil liberties groups, who charged that the government is revealing details of its complicity in America's crackdown on terrorism in bits and pieces, and only after repeated denials.
Hutton said he now knew that some Cabinet ministers were aware that the two were handed over to the U.S. and transferred to Afghanistan in 2004. The government, however, continued to deny that such practices had occurred, and the cases were exposed after a review of detentions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hutton apologized for the past misinformation provided to members of Parliament.
"The U.S. government has explained to us that they were moved to Afghanistan because of a lack of relevant linguists necessary to interrogate them effectively in Iraq," Hutton said. More recently, he added, the U.S. has told Britain that it wasn't "possible or desirable" to return the men to Iraq or their home country.
The episode is the "latest in a series of issues where the government has been less than straightforward" regarding Britain's role in the so-called war on terrorism, including treatment of detainees, charged David Davis, a former spokesman for the opposition on domestic affairs.
A year ago this month, the British government admitted after past denials that two American flights carrying terrorism suspects for interrogation had landed for refueling in 2002 at a military base in Diego Garcia, a British dependent territory in the Indian Ocean.
More recently, the case of Binyam Mohamed, a former British resident who was held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba for more than four years, has revived allegations of British complicity in torture, including Mohamed's alleged treatment in Pakistan and Morocco. Mohamed returned to Britain on Monday after his release from Guantanamo, and has been granted permission to stay in the country temporarily.
"I'm afraid this is only the tip of the renditions iceberg," Clara Gutteridge, an investigator for Reprieve, a legal action charity, said Thursday. "For years now, the British government has been tossing us miserable scraps of information about its involvement in illegal renditions in Pakistan, Diego Garcia and now Afghanistan."
"Enough is enough," Gutteridge said. "The British government must come clean and reveal exactly who has it captured, what has been done to them and where are they now."
The Liberal Democratic Party's spokesman, Nick Harvey, asked Hutton for an assurance that there won't be any further revelations about British complicity in abduction, rendition or torture.
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)