LONDON, UK – Bidding to restore the reputations of MI5 and MI6 and to rebuild damaged intelligence links with the United States, the British government said on Tuesday that it had agreed to pay compensation running into millions of dollars to 15 former detainees at Guantánamo Bay and one man still held there who have accused Britain’s intelligence agencies of colluding in their torture in the American-run detention system.
The government move followed years of lawsuits by the former detainees in which British officials have been required to hand over to the courts here intelligence information that came from the United States, prompting high-level American warnings that future intelligence cooperation might be curbed.
The domestic and overseas British spy agencies have seen their own operations dragged into the headlines, with dozens of officers engaged full time preparing to defend the lawsuits.
Against that background, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose to “draw a line” under the affair, in the words of the justice minister, Kenneth Clarke, who announced the compensation deal for the 16 men, all of whom are British citizens or legal residents here.
Although Mr. Clarke withheld financial details, saying he was honoring a demand by the former detainees, he said the payments would “save public money” by avoiding years of litigation that could have cost $50 million to $80 million.
Mr. Clarke said the deal “involves no concession of liability” in respect of the torture accusations, and “no withdrawal of the allegations” made by the former detainees. They have said in their lawsuits that agents of MI5 and MI6 worked closely with the C.I.A. and other American agencies involved in their interrogation, and must have known about the torture and mistreatment. They said they suffered so-called stress techniques like sleep deprivation; subjection to extremes of noise: heat and cold, beatings and death threats.
MI5 and MI6 have said that they rigorously opposed torture, but Scotland Yard has been weighing criminal charges against at least one MI6 officer.
In the House of Commons, the deal was greeted with a mixture of reluctant acceptance and outrage, with one Labour Party backbencher saying that “ordinary decent people will be thinking the world’s gone mad,” with the government paying more to the former detainees than to victims of terrorist attacks in Britain, and Dennis Skinner, another prominent Labour gadfly, shouting “money for old rope!”
Mr. Clarke, a 70-year-old lawyer who held many of the top cabinet posts in previous Conservative governments, admitted to a personal unease at the prospect of paying large sums of taxpayers’ money to individuals who were held for years in Guantánamo and other detention centers around the world under suspicion of being linked to terrorist plots against the United States.
He described the deal as one that “everybody is uncomfortable with, and many will dislike,” and added that many people in Britain might conclude that the government was rewarding individuals who were “advancing frivolous claims” against the British secret agencies “and getting away with murder.” Still, he said, the government had concluded that it was “better to draw a line under these cases and move on,” freeing MI5 and MI6 to get on with their work and safeguarding Britain’s “very, very important” intelligence ties with the United States.
Much of the criticism in Parliament focused on the government’s refusal to say exactly how much money was involved in the compensation settlements. Mr. Clarke offered no argument when opposition members said that the estimate of the legal costs saved by the settlement, and estimates of the compensation package running as high as $80 million that appeared in Britain’s morning newspapers, sourced to unnamed officials, were a pointer to the amounts involved. For the government, he said, it was a question of “how many tens of millions were we prepared to spend to engage in interminable litigation?” The settlement with the detainees came only weeks after Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, insisted that his operatives did not use or collude in torture. In the most declaratory statement anyone from the agency has made, Sir John called torture “illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it.”
Mr. Clarke used similar words to disavow any British involvement in torture, calling it “a serious criminal offense,” whether committed at home or abroad. “And we will not condone it,” he said.
The path to Tuesday’s settlement in Britain opened in July when Mr. Cameron approved negotiations on a deal. That followed a court order demanding the disclosure of a reported 500,000 confidential documents, prompting Mr. Cameron to say that reviewing the documents would take up huge amounts of time at Britain’s intelligence agencies. Mr. Cameron also announced the appointment of an independent inquiry into the accusations of MI5 and MI6 collusion with the C.I.A. and other foreign organizations in the torture of terrorism suspects.
Mr. Cameron said a retired appeals court judge, Sir Peter Gibson, would lead a three-member panel to review actions by the security services that have led to a dozen cases before British courts in which former detainees have charged that the British agencies of knew — or should have known — that the detainees were being mistreated.
It was men at the heart of those cases who made the deal with the government that was announced on Tuesday, ending the lawsuits and assuring the government that it would not have to disclose any more secret documents.
The former detainees who will be beneficiaries of the government payout include Jamil el-Banna, Moazzam Begg, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed, Martin Mubanga and Bishar al-Rawi. Some of them, especially Mr. Mohamed and Mr. Begg, have become well-known in a broad human rights debate in Britain. Several of the men, including Mr. Mohamed, spent years under investigation by American investigators, accused of plotting attacks against the United States, only to be released back to Britain when the cases were dropped.
One of the 16 men on the compensation list, Shaker Aamer, who remains at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after nine years of detention, has alleged that MI5 officers were present when he was beaten by American investigators in Afghanistan.