Allegations that Afghan detainees were routinely handed over to Afghan authorities for torture - up to now a largely Canadian scandal - are poised to envelop fellow NATO countries with a London court case that claims Britain exposed hundreds of prisoners to abuse in similar circumstances.
A team of human-rights lawyers presented judges in a London court Monday with thousands of pages of documents it says provide detailed proof that Britain knowingly handed detainees to special prisons run by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, the intelligence agency that is widely believed to use torture as a routine part of its interrogations.
"We've got first-hand evidence of systematic torture," said Michael Fordham QC, the chief lawyer for the human-rights activists bringing the case against the British government. They are in court this week to seek a judicial review of their claims.
If proven, the case would show the British government and military in stark contravention of repeated guarantees that they would not allow prisoners to be mistreated. The lawyers are arguing that Britain broke European human-rights laws in Afghanistan.
Those allegations, which the British government rejects, are nearly identical to those facing the Harper government in Canada and cover a similar time period.
Afghanistan's NDS is also at the centre of the Canadian scandal. Last week Richard Colvin, the diplomat whose efforts to inform the government of torture launched the scandal into the public eye, told Ottawa's Military Police Complaints Commission that he had warned officials that "the NDS tortures people. That's what they do, so if we don't want detainees tortured we shouldn't give them to the NDS."
The British case could yield evidence about Canada's practices. In Ottawa, lawyers and opposition politicians are trying to get the government to declassify and release documents that might show that prisoners were handed to abusive authorities. In London, these documents have been assembled by the plaintiffs and the human-rights groups they represent, and the government is fighting in court to prevent them from being released.
It isn't clear how much Gordon Brown's government will allow to be released, although the judges said Monday that they hope to bring as much as possible to light.
Still, even the human-rights lawyers' opening argument was not allowed to be released. The two-judge panel ruled that a heavily redacted version of the argument would be released later, possibly Tuesday.
The lawyers have assembled dossiers which they say prove torture in nine instances between July of 2006 and November of 2007, including electrocution, whipping, beating with cables, stress positions and sleep deprivation, but they say the rendition of suspects to the NDS was documented through to 2009. "We've got years of this practice," Mr. Fordham said.
They have documented 410 detainees, all of them considered "suspected insurgents" by the military, who were transferred into the hands of special prisons controlled by the NDS. This, Mr. Fordham said, amounts to about two detainees a week who were knowingly handed into abusive conditions.
"Our documents relate to actors and persons who supported arrangements under which detainees were transferred for investigation - and that means interrogation - by the NDS."
Of those detainees, 34 were handed by the British to an NDS prison in Kandahar, an area under the command of the Canadians.
When the Canadian case erupted last year, Mr. Colvin and others said that Canada had taken far less care than other NATO countries in ensuring that detainees were not exposed to abuse and torture. There were suggestions that Canada was not following the procedures and setting the sorts of guarantees that Britain and other countries fighting in the country's war-torn south were using.
If this case is successful, it will change that perception, as the lawyers are arguing that Britain made specific and detailed guarantees that detainees would be protected and their transfers and captivity carefully monitored, but then allegedly failed to follow up on those promises on a repeated basis.
Allegations of British complicity in detainee torture were first raised by Amnesty International in a 2007 report, at around the same time that The Globe and Mail first reported that captured men were being handed by Canadian forces to the NDS and tortured.
The British government is contesting all the allegations. Its lawyers, representing Secretary of Defence Bob Ainsworth, will argue Tuesday that pre-trial detainees are subject to sufficiently robust safeguards to prevent torture and mistreatment.