Opinion: government honesty is overdue on overseas torture

Clare Algar, executive director at Reprieve, calls for honesty from the government to repair the damage done by those who were complicit in the rendition and torture of Binyam Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee who returned to the UK this week.

Opinion: government honesty is overdue on overseas tortureClare Algar, executive director at Reprieve, calls for honesty from the
government to repair the damage done by those who were complicit in the
rendition and torture of Binyam Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee who
returned to the UK this week.

British resident, Binyam Mohamed, who has spent seven years of his life in US custody, most recently in Guantanamo Bay, came home to the UK on Monday. All charges against him have been dropped. Reprieve lawyers have acted for Binyam during his time in Guantanamo Bay and we are delighted with this news. Binyam’s extraordinary ordeal of torture and unlawful imprisonment is now over, but there are still unanswered questions about the role the British government played in Binyam’s story.

Binyam was captured in Pakistan and tortured by his Pakistani guards. During this time, he was interrogated by the British and US intelligence services. Binyam tells of an interview with someone whom he believed was a British intelligence officer.

“They gave me a cup of tea with a lot of sugar in it. I initially only took one,” Binyam said. “’No you need a lot more. Where you’re going, you need a lot of sugar’, said the officer. I didn’t know what he meant by this, but I figured he meant some poor country in Arabia. One of them did tell me I was going to get tortured by the Arabs.”

The British agent was later cross-examined in the proceedings before the British Court and it was clear that he knew that Binyam was to be handed over to the Americans and also that he was at risk of harm.

A few months later, Binyam was rendered to Morocco. The British intelligence agency knew that he had disappeared but did not know where he had been taken – they wrote to the US intelligence agency, enquiring as to his whereabouts. In late September 2002, two months after Binyam arrived in Morocco, British intelligence received a report from the US authorities of an interview with Binyam. So, from that time, British intelligence knew that the US authorities were aware of Binyam’s location and that they were interrogating him, directly or indirectly.

Despite knowing that Binyam was being interrogated on behalf of the US, but that he was not in the US or in Bagram (and thus, presumably, was somewhere pretty unpleasant), the British intelligence services not only failed to make further enquiries of the US, they provided the US with information relating to Binyam and questions they would like to be put to him in interrogation. Binyam said that one of his worst moments of the last seven years was realising that the British, whom he had hoped would rescue him, were in fact working with his torturers. During his time in Morocco, Binyam was subject to really medieval torture – among other horrors, a razor blade was regularly taken to his genitals.

The British government refused to disclose to Binyam’s lawyers its correspondence with the US authorities. Reprieve judicially reviewed that decision and this is the Court case which has been in the headlines for the last few weeks. The Court made it clear in its judgment that it was very unhappy in coming to its decision that the documents should not be disclosed. It came to this decision on the basis of national security, because there was a threat from the US that intelligence-sharing links with the UK would be cut if the documents were disclosed.

This in itself seems reasonably extraordinary (the US and the UK intelligence services rely on one another too much to fall out over one case) and indeed, the government has now said that the US did not in fact threaten the UK in this way. Further, it seems that whatever ‘threat’ was made was made by the Bush administration and that the UK government did not specifically check with the new Obama administration as to whether the threat was maintained. Reprieve has applied for the judgment to be re-visited in the light of the fact that there is some question as to “the accuracy and completeness of the evidence and submissions given by the [Foreign Secretary] on which the Court relied in reaching its judgment.”

David Davis, William Hague and now Lord Carlisle have spoken out criticising the government for its handling of the matter.

The documents need to be revealed for two reasons. First, to show whether our government was in fact complicit in Binyam’s torture and if so, at what level was that decision made. Secondly there will inevitably be those who dub Binyam a terrorist and a security threat. To clear his name, his torture and our government’s complicity in that process should be published.

There appears to be no danger that intelligence sharing will in fact be compromised by these documents being disclosed and there is a real danger that ‘national security’ is being used when ‘national embarrassment’ would be more appropriate.

Of course, our government would rather that evidence of its complicity in Binyam’s torture did not come out, but it is time that the secrecy of this shameful chapter is put aside and we admit what happened to Binyam. This is necessary for us to maintain the moral high ground and avoid becoming those who use torture chambers in foreign countries to elicit the information they want to hear from those who are completely vulnerable.

Clare Algar is executive director at Reprieve