Now it’s ‘cruel Britannia’

The British attorney general is under intense pressure to order a wider series of police investigations into British complicity in torture after one of the world’s leading human rights organisations said there was clear evidence of British government involvement in the torture of its own citizens.

This week, after an investigation spanning more than a year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the United Kingdom’s role in the torture of terror suspects detained in Pakistan as cruel, counter productive and in clear breach of international law.

Critically, the HRW report — entitled “Cruel Britannia: British Complicity in the Torture and Ill-treatment of Terror Suspects” — drew upon corroborative evidence received from the Pakistani torturers themselves.

Researchers at the New York-based NGO spoke to Pakistani intelligence agents directly involved in the torture who said their British counterparts knew they were mistreating British terrorism suspects.

The agents said British officials were “breathing down their necks for information” while they were torturing a medical student from London.

An Intelligence Bureau (IB) official involved in the interrogation in Karachi in August 2005 of the medical student was quoted as saying: “I do not know if the British knew we had given him a good thrashing and ‘the treatment’. But they know perfectly well we do not garland terrorism suspects or honour them. We do what we do and it’s not pretty.

“And with them breathing down our necks for information from Runnymede [the British Deputy High Commission in Karachi, known as Runnymede Estate] and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] eager to take over our turf and our suspect, we would naturally be keen to produce results. Results are not produced by having chats with the suspect.”

This man was questioned by British intelligence officers after being tortured. He was eventually released without charge and is now practising medicine in the south of England. He remains deeply traumatised.

Another Pakistani agent told HRW that British intelligence officers were “grateful” they were “using all means possible” to extract information from Salahuddin Amin from Luton, who was beaten, whipped, deprived of sleep and threatened with an electric drill.

On deportation to the UK, a judge at the Old Bailey criminal court in London ruled that Amin’s mistreatment had been physically oppressive, but fell short of torture, yet Pakistani intelligence officers told HRW Amin’s account was essentially accurate.

“UK complicity is clear,” the report said, adding that it had put the government in a “legally, morally and politically invidious position”.

The attorney general, Lady Scotland, has already asked Scotland Yard to investigate two alleged cases of British complicity in torture, one involving Binyam Mohamed, a British resident tortured in Pakistan and Morocco, and a second involving an unnamed MI6 officer and an unidentified alleged victim.

The former shadow home secretary, David Davis, said the report “destroys the last remnants of any defence the government might have”. He called on the government to hold an independent judicial inquiry.

HRW has added to the growing number of calls for an inquiry into Britain’s role in the torture, pointing out that the government may have little choice but to investigate British complicity, not only because a failure to do so is threatening to undermine its core values, but also because it is a requirement of international law.

“The convention against torture requires states to reinforce the prohibition against torture through legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures,” the report said.

Asked whether the government’s repeated insistence that it does not condone, encourage or solicit torture was still credible, a foreign office spokesperson replied with the prepared statement: “There is no truth in the more serious suggestion that it is our policy to collude in, solicit, or even directly participate in abuses of prisoners.”

HRW had not suggested any direct British participation in torture.

The Guardian reported this year that an official government policy, devised to govern British intelligence officers while interrogating people held overseas, resulted in people being tortured and that Tony Blair, when prime minister, was aware of the existence of this policy.

The Guardian has asked Blair repeatedly about any role he played in approving the policy, whether he knew that it led to people being tortured, whether he personally authorised interrogations that took place in Guantanamo and Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, and whether he made any effort to change the policy.

Blair’s spokesperson responded by saying: “It is completely untrue that Mr Blair has ever authorised the use of torture. He is opposed to it in all circumstances. Neither has he ever been complicit in the use of torture.”

When the Guardian pointed out that Blair had not answered the question — of whether he had authorised a policy that led to people being tortured — his spokesperson said: “Tony Blair does not condone torture, has never authorised it or colluded in it. He continues to think our security services have done and continue to do a crucial and very good job.”

The HRW report said that British involvement in the unlawful activities of Pakistani intelligence agents has, ironically, interfered with attempts to prosecute terrorism suspects in UK courts. It quoted a British intelligence source saying one of the alleged masterminds of the 2006 airline plot, Rashid Rauf, was badly tortured in Pakistan, and that this had been a disaster that made any successful prosecution in Britain most unlikely.

HRW asserted that “UK complicity is clear” because:

  • It is inconceivable that the UK government was unaware of the systematic use of torture in Pakistan;
  • UK officials engaged in acts that required them to know about the use of torture in specific cases; and
  • UK officials supplied questions and lines of inquiry to Pakistani intelligence sources in cases in which detainees were tortured.

A Pakistani official involved in the torture of Zeeshan Siddiqui, also from London, told HRW that an account Siddiqui gave of being beaten, drugged and forcibly catheterised before being questioned by British intelligence officers — while still in a traumatised state — was “essentially accurate” and part of “standard practices”.

The official said Siddiqui was detained at the request of MI6, the officers of which were aware that he was being processed in the “traditional way”.

He said the British were effectively interrogating Siddiqui while the IB processed him and that British emotions were running high at the time. Siddiqui was released without charge and subjected to a control order on his return to the UK. He has since absconded.

Officials from a number of Pakistani agencies involved in the detention and torture of Rangzieb Ahmed, from Rochdale, in 2006 have confirmed to HRW the overall authenticity of his claims. Ahmed said he was beaten and whipped and three fingernails were ripped from his left hand after MI5 and Greater Manchester police drew up questions that were put to him by his torturers. HRW reported that Pakistani officials said British intelligence services were aware of his detention and treatment at all times.

The report said: “These sources said that Amin’s was a ‘high pressure’ case and that the UK and United States governments’ desire for information from him was ‘insatiable’. The sources said that both governments’ agents who were ‘party’ to Amin’s detention were ‘perfectly aware that we were using all means possible to extract information from him and were grateful that we were doing so’.”

Ahmed and Amin were prosecuted for terrorism offences after being deported to the UK and are both now serving life.

Last month Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5, defended the organisation’s cooperation with intelligence agencies known to use torture, saying it had helped thwart many terrorist attacks after 9/11 and had saved British lives. He said in a speech: “In my view we would have been derelict in our duty if we had not worked, circumspectly, with overseas liaisons who were in a position to provide intelligence that could safeguard this country from attack. Were we to refuse to deal with them, accepting that in so doing we would be cutting off a potentially vital source of information that would prevent attacks in the West?”

The HRW report said that as long as the government asserted its duty to act on intelligence extracted under torture, if to do so may save lives, it must proactively and strenuously intervene to prevent mistreatment by friendly intelligence agencies. “In countries like Pakistan where there is a high likelihood of torture taking place, the UK should take special steps to prevent torture and to avoid being placed in the legally, morally and politically invidious position in which the UK government now finds itself.”

A spokesperson for the UK’s foreign office said: “The government rejects in the strongest possible terms the suggestion that a policy of complicity in torture has been in place. The report’s allegations were not new and we have responded to them in Parliament. We have taken a leading role in international efforts to eradicate torture.

There is no truth in suggestions that the security and intelligence services operate without control or oversight. There is no truth in the more serious suggestion that it is our policy to collude in, solicit, or even directly participate in abuses of prisoners. Nor is it true that alleged wrong-doing is covered up.” The spokesperson also maintained that some of the cases detailed by HRW had been considered and rejected by the UK courts. —

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Ian Cobain
Guest Author

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