The declaration by two Parliamentary committees of concerns as to the complicity of British officers in torture abroad has dominated the headlines over recent weeks.
First, the Joint Human Rights Committee called for an independent inquiry into whether the UK was complicit in torture. Then the Foreign Affairs Select Committee expressed grave concerns that British officers were complicit in torture.
The Home and Foreign Secretary’s responded declaring it is not policy to “collude in, solicit or directly participate in abuses of prisoners.” Great play has since been made of their failure to mention complicity, suggesting that the UK may well have been complicit in torture.
The evidence of Britain’s role in torture has been growing for some years. British resident Binyam Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, taken to Morocco and finally onto Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed’s lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has protested as to the torture that his client suffered, particularly in Morocco, where he was subject to mutilation via razor blades on his genitals among other things. Mohamed has told how there were British officers present during much of his ordeal. Mohamed’s case has now been handed over to Scotland Yard to investigate and find out whether British agents should face charges.
Then there is the case of Shaker Aamer who went to Afghanistan in 2001 to work with local charities, He shared a house with Moazzem Begg, who also ended up interned in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer was captured and finished up being tortured. He spent seven years in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer has lodged a legal claim in the High Court alleging MI5 and MI6 were complicit in his torture.
It would not ofcourse be the first time that Britain has faced accusations of involvement in torture. Moazzem Begg recently recalled that British military methods used in the north of Ireland to obtain information. These were what became known as the five techniques of hooding, wall standing, subjection to noise, denial of food and water and sleep deprivation.
There was also the exercise of creating the impression that a detainee was about to be thrown out of a helicopter, only to find the simulation was on the ground.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has given graphic description of how he was subjected to a number of the techniques, as well as beatings, when he was arrested in the 1970s.
The five techniques were branded cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights in 1977. This did not, however, stop Britain standing by while many of these techniques were deployed by the US as part of its war on terror over recent years.
More also needs to be known about the process of rendition, whereby people were kidnapped from one country and taken to another where they could be interrogated and tortured to get information. Another accusation presently before the courts is that the British dominion Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean was used as a site for rendition flights.
In the cases of Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer, the focus has been on the need for secret evidence to be disclosed as to what exactly went on. In both cases the US Government has proved reluctant to disclose the information it holds, while the British Government has been disingenuous about its role in the whole affair. These cases though have wide implications for the whole unjust legal paraphernalia that has been established since 9/11 around the world.
Many of these activities link directly to developments in this country over the past eight years that have seen a number of individuals detained without trial on the basis of secret evidence. Since 2001, a number of individuals have been held first in prison then under control orders using immigration law overseen by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).
One of the ongoing claims is that they have not been told of what they are accused. They come before the SIAC, unable to see the material on which their detention is based. The lawyers for the detainees are not allowed to see this material either. Only the judges and special advocates appointed to act on the detainees behalf are able to see this material.
The suspicion has been for some time that the reason for much of this secrecy is that the material in question has been obtained via torture in foreign countries. The veil of secrecy over this whole process has meant that there has been no independent way of assessing the material in question. Lawyer Gareth Peirce has described the process as bringing the two evils of torture and secrecy together. Clearly these structures also need to be addressed in any process that examines questions of complicity in torture.
There does need to be a full independent public inquiry conducted into the British role in the practice of torture. The role of Britain as first lieutenant to the US on this and other related policies like rendition need to also be exposed. However, the inquiry needs to go further looking into the system of detention established in this country under the SIAC operating under immigration law. This system of injustice is also a product of illegal international operations based on torture. It needs to be wiped away together with the various torture chambers supported by the British and US governments around the world.