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The Torture Line

The British government has tried to play down its role in rendition – the illegal removal of suspects from one country to another for questioning and, in some cases, torture. But there is mounting evidence that the Foreign Office, armed forces and intelligence services are complicit in this process, exposing British citizens and residents to ‘coercive interrogation’ techniques and opening up British airspace to US ‘torture flights’.

April 1, 2006
11 min read

An internet search on ‘Currys + Al Qaeda’ may at first sight seem a strange pairing, perhaps hinting at a new role for the British electrical retailer in screening Bin Laden videos. But it results in a story that goes to the heart of the UK’s ‘war on terror’.

British citizens Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, better known as the ‘Tipton Three’, were kidnapped by Northern Alliance fighters while on a short visit to Afghanistan after 9/11. They were handed over to US forces, eventually finding their way to Guantánamo via a detention camp at Kandahar airbase. The men were beaten, abused, shackled, isolated and accused of being jihadis, who had gone to Afghanistan to fight. An SAS officer claimed they were funded by the radical British Islamist group, Al Muhajiroun.

During their captivity, they were told that video footage had emerged of them meeting Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, in Afghanistan in 2000. That claim proved as outrageous as some of the questions put to them (‘If I wanted to get hold of surface-to-air missiles in Tipton, where would I go?’) and could easily have been refuted. It was eventually established that Rhuhel was actually studying in England at the time and working at Currys. Asif had been in trouble with the law, and investigators could have sought an alibi from the British police to clear his name.

The ‘Tipton Three’ case, recently dramatised in Michael Winterbottom’s film, The Road to Guantánamo, is one of many documented in Fabricating Terrorism: British complicity in rendition and torture. The dossier, released this month by the human rights organisation, Cageprisoners, draws on interviews with detainees, legal opinion and evidence collected by activists, to prove that the use of rendition and torture in the ‘war on terror’ is not simply the preserve of the CIA.

‘No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.’

Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). Britain and the USA are both signatories.

It shows that British officers and diplomats have supplied ‘intelligence’ about British citizens and residents, and turned a blind eye to the ‘coercive interrogation’ techniques practiced on them by the US and its client governments. There is also evidence that British agents have themselves been involved in interrogations at ‘black sites’ and prisons in central Asia, north Africa and the Middle East.

Rendition is the process of illegally moving detainees between these sites, transporting them from one jurisdiction to another without any due process. Human Rights Watch has likened this to a form of extrajudicial kidnapping or ‘disappearing’, because it often involves sending suspects to countries that are known to practice torture. Yet the US government currently defends rendition, with secretary of state Condoleeza Rice claiming that ‘renditions take terrorists out of action, and save lives’. (Rice, who grew up in the US south, might like to reflect upon the fact that rendition’s murky history can be traced back to the period before the American civil war, when southern states invoked the principle of ‘rendition’ to demand the return of runaway slaves who had escaped to the states of the ‘free’ north.)

The British government, in contrast, has remained in a state of constant denial. When challenged on the issue last December, Jack Straw laid out the official line: ‘Whether any particular “rendition” is lawful depends on the facts of each individual case … We would not assist in any case if to do so would put us in breach of UK law or our international obligations. In particular, we would not facilitate the transfer of an individual from or through the UK to another state where there were grounds to believe that the person would face a real risk of torture.’ Tony Blair has also emphasised the importance of upholding the rule of law in rendition cases, stating that, ‘If it is something that is unlawful I totally disapprove of it; if it is lawful, I don’t disapprove of it.’

For a lawyer, Blair’s grasp of international law is alarmingly wrongheaded. ‘Rendition’ and so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ are illegal and not permitted under any circumstance, even if no torture takes place. The only legal means to remove an individual from one state to another is extradition, a formal judicial process for transferring suspects between countries to face prosecution or, if already convicted, to serve a sentence.

The grave implications of rendition have been spelt out by EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini, who recently warned a special committee of the European Parliament: ‘Any EU nation that assisted the CIA with abductions, renditions and secret incarcerations could lose its EU voting rights.’

But such threats have not prevented the spread of rendition since 9/11. Asim Qureshi, a spokesperson for Cageprisoners, suggests that: ‘Illegal detentions have spread across the world like a malignant virus. Many states are guilty of complicity in these renditions and of outsourcing torture.’ Suspects have been transported to Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Romania – where they face a serious risk of maltreatment. Amnesty – and, indeed, the US State Department itself – has recorded a long list of human rights abuses in these countries. They are also some of the locations for the CIA’s new extra-judicial ‘black sites’ (unofficial detention centres), where it practises what it euphemistically calls ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – a polite way to say torture.

Evidence collected by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, plane spotters and even disillusioned former intelligence officers show that Britain is complicit in this rendition process. To start with, there is considerable evidence that rendition flights have passed through British airspace. Official denials from Jack Straw and Tony Blair were followed by the admission, made by armed forces minister Adam Ingram in a letter to Menzies Campbell, that two planes known to be used for rendition flights had landed at RAF bases. This information was only provided after Campbell and others had threatened to refer the matter to the parliamentary ombudsman.

Yet evidence gathered by Amnesty and other human rights campaigners shows that between 2001 and 2005 rendition flights occurred on a much larger scale than Ingram was prepared to admit, and that commercial airports as well as RAF ones were used. In total, Amnesty recorded at least 78 stopovers by rendition flights at four British airports – Luton, Glasgow, Prestwick and Northolt – for planes whose final destinations included Baku, Dubai, Cyprus, Karachi, Qatar, Riyadh, Tashkent and Warsaw. A recent Guardian investigation discovered 210 suspicious CIA flights crossing England alone.

In one notable example, a CIA-operated Gulfstream V jet, dubbed the ‘Guantánamo Bay Express’ by Amnesty, made several trips between Cairo and Prestwick in December 2001. That month, the same plane had arrived in Glasgow from Uzbekistan. Although it is impossible to document the precise fate of its passengers, Craig Murray, who was British ambassador there at the time, reported that Uzbek security forces had conducted torture, including the immersion of suspects’ body parts in boiling water, to gain intelligence for use by US and UK security agents. Murray was subsequently recalled from his post after he refused to remain silent about such practices.

British complicity in rendition runs deeper than just the use of its airspace, however. Cageprisoners reports that government employees have also been responsible for the unnecessary incarceration and rendition of British ‘suspects’, abrogating their obligations towards these detainees. The ‘Tipton Three’ claim that British diplomats tried to elicit fantasy confessions from them in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. Another ex-Guantánamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, refers to an occasion when ‘the person from the Foreign Office turned up at the same meeting as the representative from MI5’ – a situation which he sees as illustrative of the complicity between the two organisations.

In the case of Jamil El Banna and Bishir Al Rawi, British intelligence agents were more directly responsible for rendition by passing dubious ‘information’ to counterpart agencies. The pair had decided to set up a peanut factory in Gambia in November 2002 and, although they had previously drawn the attention of MI5, they were given permission to travel. But Jamil and Bishir were immediately picked up when they landed in Gambia. Jamil reports being told by the Gambian agents that ‘it was the British who have told us to arrest you.’ The two men were later rendered to Kabul, where they were assaulted in the city’s ‘dark prison’ (a local nickname) before being transferred to Bagram airbase, also in Afghanistan, in January 2003. Their illegal rendition to Afghanistan and a subsequent rendering to Guantánamo was a direct result of incrimination by British intelligence, although to date neither man has been charged with any crime. Jamil reports that a US official told him: ‘It is your government, Britain … who called the CIA and told them that you and Bisher were in Gambia and to come and get you. Britain gave everything to us. Britain sold you out to the CIA.’

Bisher’s MP, Edward Davey, backs up this account: ‘In Gambia the group was interviewed by American officials. They had a file on Bisher, which must have come from the UK authorities … It had information on Bisher’s hobbies that he pursued in the UK.’ The case is one of several in which British intelligence has requested foreign secret services to pick up suspects on the basis of similarly flimsy evidence.

The British secret services were also involved in the case of Binyam Mohammed Al Habashi, an Ethiopian granted asylum in the UK. He has long maintained that British intelligence was directly involved in the interviews that led to his rendition. Jack Straw had previously denied this, but was forced to admit before the Commons foreign affairs committee last December that MI6 officers had, in fact, interrogated Al Habashi in Pakistan.

British dual citizen Martin Mubanga has also claimed that information provided by British intelligence led to his rendition to Guantánamo. But once it became clear that there was no evicence of his being an Al-Qaeda operative, Martin reports that the security services then tried to recruit him as a plant within Muslim communities in South Africa or Leeds. ‘They wanted me to go where no one would know me, I suppose so I could be undercover,’ he said.

As yet, there is no evidence that British intelligence officials have been directly involved in torturing suspects. But it would be premature to rule out that prospect completely. There is strong historical evidence that the British security forces used torture techniques in Northern Ireland, although official reports into the matter were something of a whitewash. More recently, the mass kidnapping of 28 Pakistanis in Greece last July for alleged links to the 7/7 London bombings caused an international scandal. In that case, it was claimed that at least one intelligence agent, linked to the British embassy, had been present when the men were physically tortured.

It is unclear whether or not this is an isolated incident. But what is clear is that interrogation is being outsourced to countries that engage in torture, and that British intelligence has been a willing informant for agencies that engage in rendition – shedding a very dark cloud over British government claims to stand at the forefront of the fight against torture.

When the UK became a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) on 10 December 2003, Jack Straw claimed that it would ‘promote a more intensive and concerted approach to eradicate torture through a preventive system of regular, independent visits to places of detention.’ Yet the presence of British agents at extra-judicial detention centres such as Guantánamo, the opening of British airspace to rendition flights, and the exchange of information with secret services that engage in ‘coercive interrogation’, all suggest that it is only torture itself that has become more intensive and concerted.The Cageprisoners dossier, Fabricating Terrorism: British complicity in rendition and torture, can be downloaded from www.cageprisoners.com

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