one small window…

on the world: a view on human rights

We Tortured Some Folks Too


Photo credit: Faiz Baluch

Torture has been a fairly consistent feature of British foreign policy since the colonial era, in Northern Ireland, and currently in the neo-colonial policies of the so-called war on terror. Britain’s use of torture, however, often slips below the radar. The British government works hard to make sure it stays there.

On 9 December 2014, when the heavily redacted 500-page summary* of the US Senate Select Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture in the extraordinary rendition programme was finally published, it emerged that the British government had asked for changes and specific redactions to be made concerning its role.

References were removed to the island of Diego Garcia, British-administered territory in the Indian Ocean leased to the US military and used as the site of a secret CIA torture prison. The British government has denied knowledge of such claims since they first came to light in 2005; in 2014, it claimed related flight logs in its possession had been destroyed by “heavy rain”. A number of US officials have admitted that the CIA had used the territory for ‘enhanced interrogations’.

Among those alleged to have been rendered through Diego Garcia are Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his family. Having denied claims of its collusion in the rendition of this and another Libyan family to torture by the Gaddafi regime in 2004, documents discovered in a government building in Tripoli following the 2011 Arab Spring Uprising confirmed the claims. Belhaj has since sought to sue officials such as former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and former head of MI6’s counter-terrorism unit Sir Mark Allen for complicity.

Dismissed by the High Court as potentially damaging to UK-US relations, he was granted leave to appeal with the case heard by the Supreme Court in November. Potential damage to diplomatic relations between the two states through prosecution and disclosure is a claim made in previous rendition cases by the British government. If this argument is accepted, it would deny victims justice and “constitute a notable limitation on British courts’ jurisdiction in the context of events arising from the so-called global war on terror.”

The two rendition cases highlight the diplomatic importance of this secretive extralegal process: for Belhaj, rendition meant torture and illegal detention in Libyan prisons until 2010. For the British government, it helped to establish commercial relations with the Gaddafi regime, and Allen later became special advisor for BP, brokering multi-billion pound oil deals with Libya.

Other victims, including British citizens, have also sought legal redress for the extralegal abuse they suffered, resulting in at least one case of highly embarrassing disclosure for the government. In other cases, secret out-of-court settlements without admission of liability were reached. In 2013, the Justice & Security Act was passed to make it almost impossible for such cases to proceed in future.

A comprehensive 2013 report by Open Society Foundations, which lists the UK as one of 54 colluding states, mentions others forms of collusion, including that it “permitted use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with extraordinary rendition operations,” with at least 170 torture flights landing and refuelling at domestic airports. A criminal investigation into at least 6 such flights is currently underway in Scotland. As part of its investigation, Scotland’s most senior prosecutor wrote to the US authorities in January 2015 seeking access to the full unredacted torture report. The US has yet to respond.

Beyond involvement in some of the 119 cases admitted in the 2014 torture report, the British army has also been closely involved in the use of torture alongside and with the US military and intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK did not just hand over prisoners it captured to the US military for rendition and torture: it committed its own abuses.

These claims have not proved any easier to sweep under the carpet. In 2014, the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague reopened a preliminary investigation into British war crimes in Iraq, including torture. There are currently more than 1300 cases before the ICC. The government is also seeking legal means to prevent these kinds of cases arising in the future.

Torture and war crimes are not new to the British army and the government must be aware through its similar actions in Northern Ireland that further injustice will not deter victims. Earlier this year, it was reported that Northern Ireland torture cases from the 1970s, reminiscent of recent incidents in Iraq, may be reopened. A November visit by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on transitional justice, Pablo de Greiff found that decades on, justice initiatives and institutional reforms are fragmented and issues such as torture “deserve urgent attention”.

The release of the 2014 torture report has led to calls for urgent attention to British collusion in CIA torture too. Politicians and MPs have called for a judge-led inquiry. An earlier inquiry collapsed under the weight of criminal investigations at the time and the refusal of victims, lawyers and NGOs to cooperate with its narrow terms. The Prime Minister was asked about progress into a possible inquiry by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament on 30 November.

A year on, the Torture Report has not resulted in prosecutions of those involved in the extraordinary rendition programme in the US, but it has led to progress elsewhere and further light being shed on the programme and the abuses prisoners faced. As a result, the European Parliament has reopened its inquiry into member state collusion.

Investigation and prosecution matter for many reasons, including making sure such practices are not ongoing or will recur in the future. The torture report was completed in 2013 and covers a time period from 2002 to 2006. British history shows that the failure to investigate and prosecute torture properly in Northern Ireland 40-50 years ago meant that those practices recurred decades later. There is sufficient evidence to suggest both the US and UK are still involved in the practice of kidnap and extralegal detention and abuse of suspects.

The lack of political will expressed in ever seriously resolving any of these issues suggests that the real interest lies in maintaining a colonial practice. The CIA too has longstanding form in the use of torture. “We tortured some folks” was the flippant phrase Barack Obama used to admit in August 2014 that the CIA had indeed tortured detainees. It was never about interrogation or security, but dehumanisation, gratuitous humiliation and control.

* The full report is 6700 pages

The London Guantánamo Campaign will mark the first anniversary of the publication of the report summary on 8 December with a panel discussion on the UK’s use of torture at Goldsmiths, University of London

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