Torture ruling a victory for free speech

February 10, 2010

padraig_reidyPadraig 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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I think the situation is a lot more complex. We live in a world where the interests of those who make a career out of human rights are no longer necessarily aligned with the universal promotion of human rights.

I didn’t know who Clive Stafford Smith was until, on Radio 3’s “Private Passions”, I heard him describing death row appeals in the US. Here was a man who was as proud as any politician of his ability to manipulate people’s opinions through dissimulation. When an activist is happy to “censor” his true position, beliefs and motivations in order to subvert a distasteful yet democratically arrived at system of capital punishment – isn’t the pot of activists every bit as black as the kettle of civil servants?

On the case in point, that of Binyam Mohamed, the mere fact that Mr Stafford Smith was representing him meant that my instinct was to flatly disbelieve every press release he issued. Does that situation help anyone?

The sky wasn’t falling until yesterday, and no Elysium awaits us tomorrow.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

Great news – we can now all be blown to bits by Islamic Militants happy in the knowledge that at least we haven’t hurt the poor darlings.

Posted by Ian Shepherd | Report as abusive

Everyone, individuals and governments, has a right to some secrets, the world and society could not operate in a climate of total openness and honesty. The issue really is twofold – accountability and trust. In the end, your sins shall find you out – we are all accountable at some point, but for Governements and government departments we do need the accountability to be somewhat more immediate. It’s not beyond the wit of man to create structures that generate that accountability, while retaining the necessary levels of secrecy. The problem is more at the moment that there is zero trust in either the elected or paid officials of government, which exaggerates the demand for openness and accountability. In a climate where those we chose to govern us have been seen to cheat on their expenses to the point of criminality, and to demonstrably fail to understand why the nation sees this as immoral, there is little hope of any degree of trust in the immediate future. Sadly, none of the main parties seem as yet to understand the depth of the nation’s repugnance, nor the need for remediation of the morality, rather than the process.

Posted by PercyPants | Report as abusive

No key intelligence has been exposed! What has been revealed is culpability for torture. I have seen no details emerge that reveal details of any security operations beyond the simple torture of this unfortunate man. The argument that covering up the simple fact that torture occured is somehow essential to state security is spurious at best, cynical and corrupt at worst.

Men who participate in torture are criminals, and should not be allowed to hide behind false claims of state secrecy. If they don’t like being hauled into court, they have nothing but their own criminality to blame!

Posted by Il Americano | Report as abusive

Tortured until proven innocent? Its easy to say
torture people for the good of the country, until
you are one of those people it happens to.

People will say anything to make the pain stop, countries
who use torture already have a internal problem that is
more serious than the terrorist can do, they have already made us abandon our humanity.

People who torture terrorists are just a sliver away
from justifying how to apply to whoever does not agree with their goals, nobody was magically tortured, it had to go down a long list of military personnel.

But as soon as their identities might come out it becomes a international secret. Can’t have the kids knowing that daddy/mommy beat a human all day at work without even charging him for a crime.

These people who tortured this individual and others should be prosecuted, because torture is a crime or it used to be {sarcasm}.

Posted by Lesia | Report as abusive