Torture ruling a victory for free speech

February 10, 2010

padraig_reidy-Padraig Reidy is news editor at Britain’s Index on Censorship an organisation promoting freedom of expression. The opinions expressed are his own.-

The Court of Appeal’s decision on Wednesday to release material relating to the torture of “war on terror” detainee Binyam Mohamed is undoubtedly an embarrassment for David Miliband, the Foreign Office and the government.

The redacted evidence, itself a mere seven paragraphs, revealed reports that Mohamed, who has never been charged with any terror offence, was shackled during interrogation, subjected to sleep deprivation and suffered severe mental stress.

The paragraphs did not reveal any evidence of direct British intelligence involvement in torture, though the judges made it clear in the last paragraph: “The treatment reported, if had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom, would clearly have been in breach of the undertakings given by the United Kingdom in 1972. Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could readily be contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of BM by the United States authorities.”

So one can understand the Foreign office’s attempts to cover up the evidence: but at a time when Barack Obama’s White House has revealed far more disturbing details of the treatment of renditioned prisones than the ones contained in these paragraphs, it seems disingenuous for Milliband to claim, as he did, that the publication of these paragraphs would endanger U.S.-UK intelligence sharing.

Miliband’s lawyers even went so far as to have a paragraph redacted from the Court of Appeal judgement at the last minute, in a scrabbling effort to defend the reputation of the security services.

So was there a motive beyond this? Embarrassment? Shame? Simple control freakery? Possibly a combination of the three. Both Miliband and his Conservative shadow, William Hague, have spun the judgement as upholding the “control principle” on intelligence sharing. This suggests that there would not be any significant difference in approach to secrecy by any future Conservative government. Meanwhile, Miliband has ruled out a public inquiry into Mohamed’s case — unsurprising when one considers the lengths to which the government went to conceal seven tiny morsels of information.

Of interest, however, to Index on Censorship and civil libertarians is this line from the judgement: “[In] principle, a real risk of serious damage to national security, of whatever degree, should not automatically trump a public interest in open justice…”

Encouragingly, (and unusually) an English court has committed to free expression and exchange of information as a principle. Our politicians understandably recoil from the free flow of information (God knows it did them no favours in the recent expenses scandal), but now their hand has been forced yet again, isn’t it time that all the UK’s parties started taking free expression to their hearts? The revulsion at attempts to cover up torture, the disgust at the refusal to be open about expenses, and the popular clamour for reform of the libel laws should demonstrate to UK legislators that whoever commits to free speech and free information this Spring will win not just kudos, but votes.

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