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Europe’s Dirty Secret: Ongoing Torture Collusion

Extraordinary rendition

In a statement he made last year, Nils Muižnieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (CoE), Europe’s 47-member human rights body, called on European states to come clean on their “complicity in the unlawful programme of “extraordinary renditions” – involving abduction, detention and ill-treatment of suspected terrorists – carried out by the CIA in Europe.” He demanded that member states “take urgent political and judicial initiatives” to “lift the veil of secrecy Governments have drawn over their responsibilities.”

MEP Sarah Ludford joins an extraordinary rendition protest

MEP Sarah Ludford joins an extraordinary rendition protest

In his statement, he correctly identified that “to date, governments have been unwilling to establish the truth and ensure accountability for their complicity in the unlawful programme.” Aside from the adverse impact on diplomatic and intelligence-sharing relations with foreign states an honest and transparent relation with domestic taxpayers can have, there may be a more obvious reason veiled in secrecy: states are still complicit. Muižnieks’ report limits activity to taking place between 2002 and 2006; although the issue has fallen almost completely off the public radar, nothing indicates that extraordinary rendition is not ongoing, or that it was limited to a given period.

Barack Obama’s administration has given no indication that it intends to end the extraordinary rendition programme. Obama-era torture facilities have been reported: in 2011, an investigation by The Nation uncovered secret detention facilities in Somalia where terrorism suspects are held, sometimes for over a year. The US military (JSOC) was also found to be running secret prisons in Afghanistan in that same year.

A report published in February 2013 by the NGO Open Society Foundations (OSF), possibly the most comprehensive study on the issue so far, lists 25 European states out of 54 known to have facilitated the extraordinary rendition programme in various ways. A flagrant violation of their obligations under international, European and domestic laws prohibiting involvement in the commission, facilitation and failure to prevent torture, the outsourcing of torture and illegal detention would not have been possible without the assistance of third-party states. There inevitably had to be some benefit for the states involved: one in which the trade in intelligence and commerce became entangled in the illegal traffic in human lives and torture. Democratic accountability, transparency and the rule of law are among the casualties.

Most states have yet to admit their collusion in torture, particularly “as concerns the use of their airspace and airports for suspected rendition flights, capture and transfer of individuals to U.S. custody and participation in interrogation, as well as knowledge of the secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations.” Some states, such as Denmark and Finland, whose governments have each admitted facilitating over 100 torture flights, have carried out partial and incomplete investigations. Other states have denied involvement altogether and not responded to requests for information from their own judiciaries or international bodies and NGOs.

Torture flights

European states facilitated the use of their air space and airports for CIA “torture” flights, transporting rendition victims from one site to another, or on to Guantánamo Bay. A 2007 European Parliament report mentioned over 1000 such flights in member states between 2001 and 2005. The Republic of Ireland is one such state; the 2007 European Parliament report mentioned 147 flights for Ireland alone. A 2006 CoE report stated that Ireland could be held liable for its collusion in torture, with other states that acted as “‘stopovers’ for flights involving the unlawful transfer of detainees.” The Irish Human Rights Commission also issued a report in 2007 and urged the Irish government to inspect US military planes, particularly as by 2006, thousands of US military flights were passing through Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland. In spite of an overwhelming body of evidence, including extensive flight logs recorded by activists at NGO Shannonwatch and handed over to the police, the Irish government has failed to investigate; instead, it has relied on US assurances that the flights were lawful and has otherwise denied any wrongdoing or that there is anything to investigate. In 2011, the UN Committee against Torture recommended that Ireland “be explicit about how it will investigate allegations of Ireland’s involvement in ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights and adopt measures to prevent future violations of human rights.”

Shannonwatch monitors “all military flights and rendition-linked flights in and out of Shannon and through Irish airspace”, and has reported that “There are approximately 20 US military-related flights landing at Shannon every week. These include U.S. troop carriers, as well as U.S. Air Force and Navy planes such as C-130 Hercules, in-flight refuelling aircraft, executive jets and others.” In view of this ongoing activity, it is not implausible that a number of these may be “torture” flights. An investigation would help to dispel any such concerns.

John Lannon from Shannonwatch states that “Our main concern in relation to renditions right now is the failure of the present Irish government – just like the last one – to acknowledge or investigate the involvement of Shannon Airport. And since they haven’t even admitted that the airport was used by rendition planes, there is no reason to believe that the US government would be stopped if they tried to take prisoners through Shannon to Guantánamo or any other torture site in the morning.

“The Minister for Foreign Affairs has said there is no evidence that Shannon or any other Irish airport has ever been used for rendition. But as he himself pointed out in parliament on 12 December 2007, when he was in the opposition, a number of reports have stated that Shannon Airport was used for the transiting of people who are, as he said “being ferreted away for the purpose of torture”. In March 2006, Mr Gilmore also highlighted a Council of Europe statement that the European Convention on Human Rights would be violated through an omission to act to stop such serious violations of human rights. “Not knowing is not good enough” said Mr Gilmore at the time. But sadly he is now satisfied with not knowing.”

No torture please, we’re British

The United Kingdom, a state with a long and recent history of torture and a “special relationship” with the United States, has been far more complicit: the OSF report states that “The U.K. government assisted in the extraordinary rendition of individuals, gave the CIA intelligence that led to the extraordinary rendition of individuals, interrogated individuals who were later secretly detained and extraordinarily rendered, submitted questions for interrogation of individuals who were secrOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAetly detained and extraordinarily rendered, and permitted use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with extraordinary rendition operations.” The report mentions a number of the many known cases the British government has been complicit in.

The official response has been denial and attempts to prevent accountability. This has not always been an easy option though, with the large amount of evidence and cases that continue to emerge. The controversial case of rendition victim Binyam Mohamed, in which a court ordered the government to disclose of what it knew of his torture ordeal, showed that the government had misled the courts, the public and parliament for years. Other judicial attempts at transparency and accountability have ended in secret out-of-court settlements. Criminal prosecutions have fallen through largely due to a lack of evidence or private settlements.

In an attempt to deal with the many allegations and the loss of confidence in the former government and the intelligence agencies, the current Coalition government announced a series of measures in 2010 to draw a line under the allegations. The government’s reference to the “mistreatment of detainees” as a euphemism for torture demonstrated that politically nothing had changed.

Four years on, the result has been a controversial piece of legislation, the Justice and Security Act 2013, rolling out the use of secret court proceedings that effectively close the doors of justice on victims. The UN Committee against Torture stated in its observations in 2012 that secret court proceedings “may adversely impact on the possibility to establish State’s responsibility and accountability.” Another measure announced at the time was a Detainee Inquiry, which collapsed in 2012 due to the criminal cases against the government and its lack of transparency, leading to a boycott by victims, lawyers and NGOs. Its preliminary conclusions were published in redacted form almost 18 months after it was delivered to the government in December 2013. The government then decided it would hand the inquiry over to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, one of the parties implicated.

Business as usual

Extraordinary rendition has always been shrouded in extreme secrecy, yet while many reports deal with past conduct, there is sufficient evidence that the practice continues.

Three cases shows that the current British government claims that torture collusion took place only under its predecessor are untrue. The first took place in July 2010 around the same time that the Coalition government announced its measures to deal with torture allegations. Three men accused of involvement in a bombing in Kampala, Uganda, as the World Cup final took place, were arrested in Kenya and “rendered” to Uganda, where they claim they were subject to mistreatment by UK intelligence officers, among others. On the basis of evidence obtained in this manner, they were later charged and face the death penalty. As part of a claim they brought in the Ugandan courts, they tried to sue the British government to disclose information that they were tortured by British agents. In 2012, the High Court in London, hearing the case partly in secret session, dismissed the case, without stating whether or not Britain was involved.

The second case, involving a former British national and two Swedish citizens, came to light at the end of 2012 when they were brought before a US federal court on terrorism charges following their “disappearance” in East Africa months earlier. The three, alleged to be former Al-Shabaab members, were detained in Djibouti in the summer of 2012. According to the Washington Post, “Two months after their arrest, the prisoners were secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York, then clandestinely taken into custody by the FBI and flown to the United States to face trial.”  The two Swedish men were visited by consular representatives in prison in Djibouti and the US, yet they failed “to intervene on behalf of the men who likely were denied due process while in custody the past months.” In the case of long-term UK resident, Mahdi Hashi, who had left the UK to live in Somalia following harassment by the security services in the UK, had his British nationality revoked by the Home Office shortly before he was arrested.  He is currently appealing this unusually timed decision. Much secrecy still surrounds the whole case, and “The involvement of British and Swedish agents or intelligence agencies is unknown.”

A third case involving Britain came to light in late 2013 when it emerged that two British men of Somali origin suspected but not charged of terrorism involvement had been detained in the northern territory of Somaliland for two months in 2011 before being forcedly brought back to the UK; lawyers for one of the men said that he had, in effect, been rendered. The day before he was detained the Home Secretary issued a control order for one of the men. The other man is alleged, in Somaliland, to have “have been hooded, beaten, forced into stress positions and subjected to a mock execution. While hooded, he says, he heard some of his captors speaking English with British accents.” The pair is now suing the British government in separate cases; the government has won permission to apply for secret court proceedings under the new Justice and Security Act 2013 in this case.


The effect of over a decade of European collusion in extraordinary rendition has been detrimental to the rule of law and democratic accountability and transparency across the continent. Muižnieks states that secrecy “should never serve as an excuse to conceal serious human rights violations.” National security, the excuse often invoked by states to seek immunity through secrecy, is poorly defined and is not synonymous with the national interest.

The downward descent into arbitrariness broke new ground in 2013 in a thoroughly European rendition, when the wife and daughter of a Kazakh dissident, Mukhtar Ablyazov, were illegally deported from Italy on 31 May 2013. They were arrested by the police and hurriedly deported on a private plane. The Italian government later admitted that it had acted unlawfully in expediting the hasty deportation to a country where there was a risk of torture due to the husband’s political activity. Three UN human rights experts called the process an “extraordinary rendition”. Pressure on the Italian authorities brought the pair back to Italy in late December last year. Yet, in a curious twist to this tale, demonstrating the political nature of the expulsion and machinations behind the scenes, less than two weeks later, on 9 January 2014, a French court ordered Ablyazov’s extradition to Russia. Ablyazov is a controversial figure; a banker, he is wanted in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan on charges of embezzling over $6 billion from a bank he ran. He fled Kazakhstan, an oil-rich central Asian state in 2009, and was granted asylum in the UK in 2011, where he was subject to court proceedings, before being arrested in France in July 2013. The rendition has drawn attention to the human rights situation in Kazakhstan, which has worsened in recent years, which foreign states looking for trade deals are happy to turn a blind eye to.

In the same period that European states have been colluding in extraordinary rendition, the line between the public and private sectors has blurred increasingly, with states run like private corporations at the expense of the public pocket. Governments have shown their willingness to put self-interest first and jettison their obligations under international laws and treaties on human rights to protect international diplomatic, commercial and personal relations. This is similar to how austerity has been used as a means to avoid democratic accountability and impose arbitrary measures on unwilling and assuming populaces. States must face up to their responsibilities and comply with the laws and obligations they have signed up to. Media silence and state secrecy can buy time but there is no place for extralegal Wild-West-meets-the-mafia practices in the modern world.

Disclaimer: Torture collusion in the context of this article relates only to extraordinary rendition, and not any other forms of torture European states may be alleged or known to be involved in.


4 comments on “Europe’s Dirty Secret: Ongoing Torture Collusion

  1. Pingback: / Shannon Airport: Ireland’s Gateway to Torture, by Aisha Maniar

  2. Pingback: Europe’s Narrow Lead on Prosecuting CIA Torture | World Without Torture

  3. Pingback: CIA Continues to Deny Use of Torture, Shrugging Off Prosecutions Outside the US | CentralTRUTH

  4. Pingback: We Tortured Some Folks Too | one small window...

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