Complicity in torture
The details of ‘extraordinary rendition’ are finally out in the open. Yassamine Mather looks at the UK’s responsibility for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’
Like everything else about the ‘war on terror’, we will never know the true scale of UK complicity in the torture carried out by the US. However, in late June two parliamentary reports shed light on some aspects of the cooperation of UK security services with both the CIA and a number of unsavoury dictatorships between 2002 and 2006.
Last week, former Conservative justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said he “regrets” stopping the Gibson inquiry in 2012, claiming he did so because it clashed with separate police investigations. Clarke is now in favour of a “full, independent, judge-led inquiry” as “the only way that the full truth of Britain’s involvement in extraordinary rendition and torture will be revealed”.1
According to one of the parliamentary reports, it was “beyond doubt” that the UK knew how the US mistreated detainees, and the MPs rejected claims by intelligence agencies that the cases of rendition were no more than “isolated incidents”. In fact British agencies “continued to supply intelligence to allies despite knowing or suspecting abuse in more than 200 cases”.2
The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) “found the UK intelligence agencies to be complicit in hundreds of incidents of torture and rendition, mainly in partnership with the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo”. The ISC chairman, Dominic Grieve, said UK renditions had facilitated the sending of prisoners to countries “with very dubious human rights records, where it would have been very likely that the person would be in fact tortured or ill-treated”.
The reports are themselves incomplete. The ISC confirms that Theresa May protected the intelligence services by blocking evidence from officers who were working directly with US intelligence services. Clarke tells us: “I simply cannot understand ... the prime minister’s basis for this decision.”
Former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, who was responsible for overseeing GCHQ and MI6 between 2001 and 2006, said, on the one hand, he was not aware of the activities or approach of the agencies. On the other hand, he claimed: “Many lessons ... have since been learnt.” However, there are some gems in the reports, contradicting such claims of ignorance, including this one regarding MI6: it “sought and obtained authorisation from the foreign secretary” to pay for an entire plane used in the rendition of a single individual.
A number of ‘human rights’ groups, including Amnesty International UK, Reprieve and Liberty, are up in arms. They have produced a joint statement saying the ISC’s reports “revealed shocking new details of UK complicity in torture and rendition”. What is more, these were “just the tip of the iceberg” and so they are calling for an independent inquiry.
However, only one group - Reprieve - is calling for a police investigation, as far as I know: “The police must also be free to follow the evidence and pursue prosecutions against those who were ultimately in charge and responsible for these appalling actions.”
It goes without saying that these findings make a mockery of claims by supporters of ‘civil society’ in capitalism and the British state that adherence to the ‘rule of law’ guarantees civil and human rights. Of course, the UK establishment prides itself in being a pioneer in the abolition of torture, yet even a superficial look at the history of torture shows the hypocrisy of such claims.
As early as 1215 ‘trial by ordeal’, administered by priests, came to an end by order of the pope. The accused were subjected to painful and dangerous mistreatment, and their condition afterwards was supposed to ascertain whether were guilty or innocent. Usually this was a test of life or death - if you survived, you must be innocent. Then in 1275 a law was introduced which allowed people to be tortured if they refused to go to trial before a jury.
Of course, on top of this, torture was still used for obtaining intelligence or as a means of terrifying dissidents. However, during the 14th century in a dispute between Edward II and the pope, the English sovereign first refused to endorse torture, only to agree later that the prisoners could be taken to France, where the legal constraints that existed in England would not apply.
According to Danny Friedman QC, “These events are of interest to 21st century public lawyers”, because they deal with two kings planning rendition and the use of torture: “Despite the power of the monarchy, something akin to a principle of legality appears to have been in play.”3 In other words, there is no contradiction between the use of torture and the ‘rule of law’.
Torture was also considered legal between 1540 and 1640, when it was formally abolished by parliament. However, a couple of years later during the English Civil War, the Earl of Clarendon came up with the idea of establishing a prison on an island off the British mainland, where torture could be employed. This practice continued until 1679, when the Habeas Corpus Act was passed.
But none of this has stopped the authorities from mistreating prisoners. Ian Cobain who has investigated the history of the use of torture, reminds us that it “was a frequent, even routine, thing in 1939-1945 Britain”, carried out in secret interrogation centres. During ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland the ‘five techniques’ - isolation, sensory deprivation, exhaustion, humiliation and seemingly self-inflicted pain - were commonly used.4
Republican political prisoners faced unprecedented pressure both during interrogation and when incarcerated - false confessions, such as those obtained from the Birmingham Six, were not achieved in conditions of adherence to the conventions signed by the UK. In 1975, Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker were each sentenced to life imprisonment following their convictions for their alleged role in pub bombings in Birmingham. Four of them had actually signed confessions, even though it was eventually established that they could not have been responsible. The court of appeal finally quashed their convictions in 1991.
In 1988 the Criminal Justice Act made it an offence for any public official to “intentionally inflict severe pain or suffering on another in the performance … of his official duties” and in 2001, after Tony Blair declared the UK to be the US’s main partner in the ‘war on terror’, the security forces and the police might have been more reluctant to physically mistreat those suspected of being Islamist ‘terrorists’.
That is when, in collaboration with the CIA, ‘rendition’ - or what has been called the ‘outsourcing of torture’ - began. According to the website of the Liberty group, “‘Extraordinary rendition’ refers to the deliberate apprehension and transfer of detainees to foreign countries for interrogation, outside of the law, where there is a risk that the person might be tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment.”
By 2005 the United Nations Committee Against Torture had published data confirming what we all knew by then: “extraordinary rendition has taken place on a significant scale”; and there was “evidence of hundreds of CIA flights over Europe” for this purpose.
A number of writers have chronicled the horrific stories of innocent men and in some cases women who were abducted in ‘civilised’ countries and sent to where torture was common practice. The website of the Rendition Project has registration and flight details of a number of the planes used, although it is likely they account for only a tiny proportion of the total number of renditions.5
There are numerous allegations, made by both journalists and former prisoners themselves, about the extent of the torture - one prisoner is said to have been ‘waterboarded’ 83 times by the CIA. And, according to the ISC, Abu Zubaydah was a CIA prisoner who went through all 12 of the agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” - including being beaten, deprived of sleep and locked in a small box. And the ISC is clear that MI6 had “direct awareness” of Zubaydah’s “extreme mistreatment and possibly torture”.
Yet despite this knowledge, according to its report, from 2002 to at least 2006, MI6 and MI5 actually supplied his interrogators with the questions they wanted answered.
In their defence security forces claim that such measures ‘saved lives’, yet there were just so many arrests, which were often completely irrational. In Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular there are many cases of baseless accusations and the settling of feuds through false accusations that led to the arrest and rendition of individuals with no connection to Islamist groups of any kind, never mind ‘terrorists’. Further, the methods used were so cruel that it is unlikely that any reliable ‘life saving’ information could have been obtained.
Of course, now we know - not least as a result of Hillary Clinton’s many emails, TV interviews and witness statements - that all along it was the US’s main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the emirates of the Persian Gulf, who were funding the likes of al Qa’eda.6 She once went so far as to say, “We created al Qa’eda.”7
The governments of the US and the UK were the flag-bearers of ‘democracy’ during this period. They were punishing ‘third world’ countries for ‘violation of human rights’, while they were doing exactly what any dictatorship might do. They associated any Muslim accused of political dissent with ‘terrorism’ to justify torture - and claimed they were ‘saving lives’!
Have “lessons been learnt”? Of course not. The recently appointed US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, as well as senior figures in the CIA, still defend the use of waterboarding. As for “prosecutions” of “those responsible”, it goes without saying that Blair and his ministers will not be touched. If there are any charges, they will be directed against those below who were obeying orders. It is highly unlikely that the people who planned and organised these dreadful events will ever face justice.
It is amazing how quickly this story has disappeared from the news in the UK. However, not surprisingly, the Iranian media gave it a lot of attention. The hypocrisy of the British state was presented as justification for Iran’s own brutal methods of forcing confessions from political prisoners.
I gave a short interview on the subject to the BBC Persian service and suddenly a large number of people in the United States seem interested in my articles, while others with titles such as “security chief” seem to want to access what I have written via social media. Of course, such people know full well how to hide their identity, when viewing social media or web pages. I can only assume that identifying their location - in some cases their rank in the armed forces - is a subtle attempt at sending out a warning.
Presumably we are supposed merely to repeat what George W Bush kept saying during his presidency: these were merely “enhanced interrogation” techniques. They were not illegal and certainly not torture!8