Britain’s torture memos: keeping up appearances

June 19, 2009

daniel gorevan– Daniel Gorevan is head of Amnesty International‘s Counter Terror with Justice campaign. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Tony Blair’s government reportedly advised MI5 officers that the UK must not be “seen to condone” torture. However, evidence is mounting that British agents knowingly exploited torture perpetrated by others.

Take the case of Khaled al Maqtari, a Yemeni arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004. He told Amnesty International that he was frogmarched from a “torture room” at Abu Ghraib out to a UK special forces jeep, huddled in a wet blanket, with the marks of beatings clearly visible on his body.

The British agents did not mistreat him, but neither did they make any effort to find out what had happened to him. Instead they drove him through the darkened streets of Baghdad, asking him to identify suspect locations, before returning him at dawn to Abu Ghraib. Three days later he disappeared into the CIA’s secret jails, not to resurface for more than two years.

Turning a blind eye to torture or abuse, benefiting from the results of that mistreatment, and delivering a man back to certain further abuse begs serious questions about the UK’s understanding and respect for its human rights and humanitarian law obligations. The question is not just whether British agents are “seen” to be cheering on torture. Whatever else might be said about keeping up appearances, states and their officials are required to do much more in the face of torture than simply mutter politely that they do not condone it.

What we should be asking is whether the UK and its agents knew, or should have known, that detainees held in U.S. custody in Abu Ghraib, or by the secret police in countries such as Pakistan or the Gambia were likely to be tortured or abused. What did the UK and its agents do or fail to do in the face of that knowledge? These are serious questions, with legal and even criminal consequences, and urgently need to be publicly and comprehensively answered.

Other incidents highlight the need for broader public inquiry. The UK provided information leading to the arrest of several men who subsequently suffered  rendition and torture at the hands of the CIA. Jamil el Banna and Bisher al Rawi, for instance, were British residents arrested in the Gambia and transferred to U.S. detention in Afghanistan, finally resurfacing in Guantánamo Bay. British agents have also been involved in the interrogation of detainees in Pakistani custody, where the risks of torture or other ill-treatment are well known.

In the case of British resident Binyam Mohamed, interrogation by UK agents in Pakistan was the prelude to rendition, torture and secret detention in Morocco and Afghanistan, followed by years in Guantánamo.

When questioned recently about British involvement in the rendition and secret detention programme, Tony Blair claimed that “It’s only ever journalists who ask me questions about issues like that. It’s not an issue [with people] out there.”

The individuals whose lives have been broken by torture might disagree. So too would those who believe in respect in for human rights; or anyone who believes that action – and not just words or appearances – are necessary if torture is ever to be eradicated.

We need a proper investigation, simple assurances are not good enough. Government investigations to date have been piecemeal and inadequate. What information we have has been revealed primarily through litigation and investigations in the pressand by Amnesty International and other NGOs.

We need to know who authorised British agents to turn a blind eye to torture, ill-treatment and renditions, and how far such authorisations went. As long as questions about Britain’s involvement in rendition and torture remain it will be an issue for Tony Blair and for the government. Whether they like it or not.

There is one, and only one, way to stop the questions: reveal the full truth and hold those responsible to account.

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