In a series of articles following, Andy Worthington, journalist and author of The Guantánamo Files, follows up on a Parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons on Monday, March 30th 2009 - "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," chaired by Diane Abbott MP - with four articles examining how and why the British government has turned its back on the principles of open justice, and five statements made by prisoners held on the basis of secret evidence.
The schedule of publication is as follows:
Tuesday March 31: The first article, Torture taints all our lives, appeared in the Guardian's Comment is free.
Wednesday April 1: The second article, Britain's Guantánamo: Calling For An End To Secret Evidence, is a report about Monday's meeting, and is accompanied by statements made by three prisoners held under house arrest or imprisoned on the basis of secret evidence (Detainees Y, BB and U), which were read out by actors at the meeting on Monday. For the three statements, see: Five Stories From Britain's Guantánamo: (1) Detainee Y, Five Stories From Britain's Guantánamo: (2) Detainee BB and Five Stories From Britain's Guantánamo: (3) Detainee U.
Thursday April 2: On Thursday I published statements made by two other prisoners held under house arrest or imprisoned on the basis of secret evidence (Hussain Al-Samamara and Detainee Z), which were also read out by actors at the meeting on Monday. For the two statements, see: Five Stories From Britain's Guantánamo: (4) Hussain Al-Samamara and Five Stories From Britain's Guantánamo: (5) Detainee Z.
Friday April 3: A third article, Britain's Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction?, compares and contrasts the regimes implemented by the Bush administration at Guantánamo, and the British government in the UK, looking in particular at both governments' attempts to bypass their obligations. under the UN Convention Against Torture, not to return foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture.
Monday April 6: A final article, Britain’s Guantánamo: The Secret Terror Court Rules, examines the latest ruling by SIAC (the Special Immigrations Appeals Commission) in the cases of the five men discussed above. The secret court's ruling regarding the Home Secretary's application to revoke their bail took place two weeks ago, but received no media coverage whatsoever.
Last Friday it was announced that, under instructions from the attorney general to the director of public prosecutions, the police are to investigate claims by released Guantánamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed that MI5 agents had knowledge of his US-directed torture, and that they also provided information to his interrogators while he was being held incommunicado.
Given that it is seven months since judges in the high court ruled that British involvement with the US authorities "went far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing," this is welcome news, but what the case of Mohamed demonstrates above all is the extent to which the Bush administration's horrendously novel approach to detention and intelligence-gathering in the "war on terror" not only made a mockery of the US's adherence to the UN Convention Against Torture, but also infected the policies of numerous other countries.
Moreover, in the Bush administration's deliberate flight from the absolute prohibition on torture - accompanied by its decision to hold terror suspects neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trials in a recognised court of law - it has become clear that the US had no closer ally than Britain.
This is revealed not only in the case of Mohamed, but also in the cases of other British prisoners held in Guantánamo: 15 in total, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph at the weekend. I presume that these include the other British prisoners released from Guantánamo, who were all held at some point in US-run prisons in Afghanistan, where they were visited by British intelligence agents. In addition, as the Independent reports today, another of these men is the British resident Shaker Aamer (still held at Guantánamo), whose lawyers reported that "UK intelligence services officers were present while Mr Aamer was beaten. They provided information and encouragement to his US torturers. They made no attempt to stop his ill-treatment or any enquiries into his wellbeing."
Nor is this the end of British involvement in torture. As the Guardian has revealed in a number of reports over the last 10 months, the British intelligence services have provided information to be used in the interrogations of British nationals held in Pakistan and Egypt, even though they must have been aware that interrogations in both countries may have involved the use of torture.
Often overlooked, however, is another British policy that could only have arisen through an enthusiastic endorsement of the Bush administration's wayward policies: the detention, without charge or trial, of "terror suspects" in the UK, first in Belmarsh, for three years (from December 2001 to December 2004), until the law lords ruled the process illegal, and, ever since, under control orders or deportation bail orders, which are often so strict that they amount to house arrest.
In the country that exported habeas corpus to the rest of the world (the principle, enshrined in the Magna Carta, that no one may be imprisoned "except upon the lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land"), it is disturbing to realise that dozens of men - including a handful of British nationals - are deprived of their liberty based on secret evidence that neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see.
Moreover, in the cases of those facing deportation, the British government is prepared to endanger our own commitment to the UN convention against torture, which prohibits the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, primarily because it is unwilling to join the rest of the world in finding ways to allow information from the intelligence services to be presented in a court of law while protecting its sources.
Instead, we are asked, by the home secretary Jacqui Smith, to trust that our intelligence services never make mistakes, and are prevented from being able to investigate suspicions that, in some cases, the information used to detain these men was extracted through the torture of prisoners in other countries.
I am glad to be able to report that, today, Diane Abbott MP is hosting a parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons to discuss the growing use of secret evidence in British courts, and I hope that numerous MPs deign to attend, but above all I hope that the people of this country understand the extent to which the corrosive effects of the Bush administration's "war on terror" have diminished our own ability to recognise that, without fair trials and an absolute ban on the use of torture, we have undermined the very foundations of fair and open justice that were enshrined, 794 years ago, in the Magna Carta.
On Monday, in a packed committee room in the House of Commons, politicians, lawyers and human rights campaigners came together to discuss how to both confront and publicize the British government's increasing reliance on the use of secret evidence, and evidence obtained through torture. The meeting focused in particular on the cases of five men held under strict bail conditions or in prison, on the basis of secret evidence, who are facing deportation, even though they face the risk of torture, as a result of "diplomatic assurances" agreed between the British government and the governments of their home countries. However, the use of secret evidence also affects other men, held under control orders, who cannot be deported either because they are British nationals, because the British government has failed to secure "diplomatic assurances" that it regards as credible, or because, on occasion, the courts have intervened to prevent their deportation.
Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, our government has aped the horrendous flight from domestic and international law that was introduced by the government of George W. Bush in its brutal and chronically ill-advised "War on Terror," and, as a result, has fatally undermined Britain's reputation as the country that introduced habeas corpus - establishing that no one may be imprisoned "except upon the lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land" - and exported it to the rest of the world. As the American lawyer Tom Wilner explained to me in an interview for a forthcoming documentary about Guantánamo, "That's the most basic protection of the law and you in England should be very proud of it because it is the basis of the rule of law around the world."
It is, moreover, just as disturbing to realize that this descent towards tyranny has taken place while largely ignored by the British public, or hidden from it through the complicity of the media, and to note that, while many British people were happy to bash the Bush administration for its brutal and lawless policies, they have been far less willing to accept that similar policies have been implemented in their own backyard.
As Gareth Peirce, the solicitor for many of the men held in Britain on the basis of secret evidence, explained in an introductory letter to the meeting,
Reliance upon secret evidence in this country, in ways that avoid any proper open scrutiny, increases daily. In recent months this reliance, far more extreme in the UK than in any equivalent democracy, has been commented on with intense disapproval by every relevant international body including the "Eminent Jurists Panel" of the International Committee of Jurists (which studied over two years the use of anti-terrorism practices worldwide), the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights (PDF), and the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A and Others.
The nightmare that surrounds this particular small group of men upon which the meeting focuses, is not therefore an isolated event; it takes place in the context of an important, far wider and ever increasing way in which we find our laws and their application on a collision course with the most basic of concepts; that an accused person knows the case against him, and can contest it in a fair, open and public hearing.
The concept is easy, but the need to explain it and debate it adequately is not easy - it is elusive and appears not to affect most of society.
As well as attracting a wide range of lawyers and activists, Monday's meeting also succeeded in drawing support from a number of MPs, including Peter Bottomley, David Davis, David Drew, Lynne Featherstone, Kelvin Hopkins, David Lepper, Sarah Teather and Des Turner, and members of the House of Lords, including Baroness Howells and Lord Avebury. The MPs were asked to pledge their support for an early day motion declaring "That this house believes the use of secret evidence in UK courts is fundamentally wrong," and Diane Abbott opened the meeting by declaring that it had three additional aims:
1) To form a group of interested parliamentarians, lawyers, doctors and activists to continue to work on this issue;
2) To call for an independent inquiry into the use of secret evidence in the UK;
3) To ask for assurances from the FCO and the Home Office that secret evidence used here is not based on evidence obtained through torture.
Also mentioned was a proposal to ask those MPs who have constituents who are being detained - whether in prison or in their homes - to visit Long Lartin prison, or their constituents' homes, to see for themselves the conditions in which they are held.
The speakers - Gareth Peirce, Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, Ben Ward of Human Rights Watch, and Dinah Rose QC - then ran through the history of secret evidence, and addressed its significance. Gareth Peirce said that we were two-thirds of the way down a slippery slope, from which there could be no return, and called the current situation a "national emergency." She noted that, when Guantánamo opened, and people saw the shackled prisoners in their orange jumpsuits, they were reminded of slavery, and instinctively knew that it was wrong, and that when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, people again knew instinctively that what had happened was wrong, but that in the case of the men detained in the UK over the last seven years, these instinctive responses have been stifled by the use of secret evidence.
The other speakers highlighted different aspects of the government's policies. Shami Chakrabarti described the history of SIAC (the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which assesses the deportation cases, often taking evidence in closed sessions), and explained how, after 9/11, it had mutated into a "secret terror court," and Ben Ward drew the meeting's attention to a troubling passage in the FCO's recent report on human rights (PDF, p. 16), in which, after stating, "The use of intelligence possibly derived through torture presents a very real dilemma, given our unreserved condemnation of torture and our efforts to eradicate it," the report's authors added, "Where there is intelligence that bears on threats to life, we cannot reject it out of hand."
Although this was followed by a declaration that it is "quite clear" that "information obtained as a result of torture would not be admissible as evidence in any criminal or civil proceedings in the UK," the passage as a whole confirms not only that the FCO is committed to keeping open a torture loophole, but also that, because that information cannot be used in a court, it will, instead, undoubtedly contribute to perpetuating the very system of detaining people on the basis of secret evidence that Monday's meeting was convened to address.
I was particularly impressed by Dinah Rose's statement, in part because, as a barrister, she has direct experience of SIAC in three different roles - as instructed by the Home Office, as a representative of some of the detainees held on the basis of secret evidence, and as a special advocate (the barristers who represent the detainees in closed sessions, but who are prohibited from discussing anything that takes place in these sessions with either the detainees or their lawyers).
Dinah stated that it was "hard to explain just how shocking an experience SIAC is for an advocate used to the basic norms of our legal system," adding, "It is the first principle of natural justice that a person has a right to know the case against them, so that they can respond to it. We take this principle for granted, from our earliest childhood." Noting that "this principle simply does not apply in SIAC," she explained that, as a result,
although SIAC looks and sounds like a court, and the judges and barristers behave with the courtesy and formalities that are used in court, it is in reality nothing of the kind. Often it feels to me like an elaborate charade, in which we are all playing the roles of barrister, solicitor, appellant and judge, but where the basic substance of a court hearing - the testing of evidence to establish where truth lies - is entirely missing.
Dinah proceeded to provide two anecdotes which vividly demonstrate how SIAC and the use of secret evidence have undermined the principles of natural justice. In the first, she recalled an incident a few years ago, when she was working as a special advocate in a hearing at which the Home Secretary applied to revoke a detainee's bail on the basis of secret evidence. This related to alleged attempts by the detainee to breach his bail conditions, but, as she explained, "The special advocates were told what the evidence was, but we were prohibited from discussing the material with the appellant or his lawyers. We were simply unable to offer any resistance at all to the application, in the absence of any instructions, which might have explained or cast a different light on the evidence." She proceeded to explain that, as a result, the judge revoked the detainee's bail, and ordered him to be sent to Belmarsh, and added,
I can still recall my deep feeling of shame when I heard the appellant ask the judge the question: why are you sending me to prison? To which the judge replied: I cannot tell you that. I could not believe that I was witnessing such an event in a British court. I could not believe that nobody protested or made a fuss. They simply took him to jail, without any explanation at all.
On another occasion, Dinah was working with a colleague on the case of another detainee, who, it was alleged, "had attempted to travel on a particular date, using a passport which belonged to another suspected terrorist." It was only because her colleague was working on another case, in which another detainee was accused of exactly the same offence - using the same passport, on the same day and at the same time - that it became apparent that the intelligence services had made a serious mistake in compiling their evidence, but she explained that when she subsequently went on a training session with the intelligence services, and asked for an explanation of how such a mistake had been made, she was told, "very firmly," that it was "impossible."
Bringing the story up to date, Dinah then described what happened five weeks ago, after SIAC was convened to assess the bail conditions of the five detainees facing deportation. As she described it, she and her colleagues "successfully resisted" an application by the Home Secretary to revoke their bail, but instead of abiding by the Court's ruling, the Home Secretary then arranged for the two men who had attended SIAC to be sent to Belmarsh prison instead of going home, and imprisoned the other three after seizing them from their homes. Dinah then explained what happened next:
The next morning we returned to SIAC urgently to seek habeas corpus and a renewal of bail, and asked politely on what basis our clients had been detained. The explanation, in relation to four of the five, was not that there had been any new development or evidence which had emerged since the hearing. Rather, the Home Secretary had simply disagreed with the judge's assessment that it was not necessary or proportionate to lock the men up. So, notwithstanding the decision given on the previous day, she had decided to go ahead and detain them anyway.
She added that, although she was constrained from commenting further, because the Home Secretary's decision "remains the subject of legal proceedings," she "made the point at the time that such conduct by a government minister is a basic violation of the principle of the rule of law," and she concluded her statement by declaring that "we should be more disturbed than we are about what goes on in SIAC. Unless its activities are subject to the scrutiny of parliament and the media, there is a significant risk that principles which I had always comfortably assumed to be so deep rooted in the UK that they no longer needed defending could be further eroded."
In a successful attempt to humanize the detainees, who are mostly identified only by initials (Detainee Y, Detainee BB, Detainee U, and Detainee Z), the speakers' statements were punctuated by other statements, written by the detainees themselves, or compiled from interviews conducted by their friends, which were read out by Honor Blackman and a group of actors from the National Theatre. The first three of these statements will be published after this article, and the other two will be published tomorrow, along with another article, "Britain's Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction?" which compares and contrasts the regimes implemented by the Bush administration at Guantánamo, and the British government in the UK.
They call me Y. But I am more than a letter. I am a man. I'm Algerian, and am 39 years old.
It's been such a long time since I experienced "normal life."
My story is a bit confusing to follow. I'll keep it simple.
I came to the UK because of its impressive human rights record. Well, that's what everyone said. I had spoken out against human rights abuses at home and got into trouble for it, so I had to leave. Maybe I should have been like everyone else and not said anything. What would you have done?
Now I have a death sentence waiting for me in Algeria.
I was living in London, as a refugee, rebuilding my life, recovering from torture and finally overcoming the demons it leaves behind.
Things were going well, and then suddenly my life turned upside down. First I was arrested as part of the "ricin plot." I spent 27 months in Belmarsh. There never was any ricin.
I was acquitted in 2005. I walked out of court a free man. You know, some of the jury members became my friends.
After 7/7 they came for me again. I had nothing to do with it. I was arrested, served with a deportation order to Algeria and taken to Long Lartin prison. No charge. No trial. I was there for 29 months.
And since last July I have been again on bail. I live alone on a housing estate, two hours outside London. A place arranged by the Home Office. It's not easy to get to, and I don't have many visitors. Sometimes I don't speak to a human being, face-to-face, for nearly two weeks.
I feel watched all the time. "They" go everywhere I go. I don't know what they want or what they are looking for.
It was a relief not to go back to prison last week. You know the only thing that scares me? It's spending the rest of my life in prison. I don't know why they keep trying to put me there. I want to know why, but they won't tell me.
After ricin, I thought the nightmare was over, but it's not. It has gone on and on. You know sometimes I think I'm going to wake up and this will have been just a dream.
I survived torture. It was some years ago, back in Algeria. It's not an easy thing to go through. I wish none of you ever suffer it. But torture, it has to end. What is going on now has no end. This is slow torture.
My father died a few months ago, back home. It was a very hard time. I was all alone with my grief. I felt useless and worthless and hopeless. The thing he said he wanted most was to hold me again. I couldn't even give him that.
My father was totally blind. I used to be his eyes.
Well, what else can I say? I feel so tired. I just want to stop thinking. I want to wake from this nightmare. All I have are dreams and hopes and wishes, but it's hard to keep hold of these.
I just want to sleep.
I have to stay in the house for 20 hours a day. I wear a tag. It makes me feel like a slave.
I am not allowed outside my boundaries. I can't go to the town centre, but I can go to two cemeteries if I want. Mostly I don't want!
The only place I go to every day is Tesco's. The security guards there are giving me funny looks now. I am there every day at the same time.
Why am I living like this? Why did I spend 56 months in prison? Why do they want to deport me to Algeria? Why do they say I'm a threat to national security? I am here like this today because of secret evidence.
With the permission of Detainee Y, this was read out, by the actor Honor Blackman, at "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," a parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons, chaired by Diane Abbott MP, on March 30, 2009. The script was written by Saleyha Ahsan, and the material used was carefully gathered through interviews.
They call me BB. I can't tell you my real name. I'm an Algerian and I've been in this country since 1995.
I'm 43 years old. I live with my wife and three children. I've got two girls and one boy - he's only three. The bail conditions I'm under apply to me, but in reality they affect my whole family. The girls can't have friends around. Nobody is allowed in unless they are Home Office cleared.
Someone asked me the other day, when was the last time I had seen my own friends. I had to stop and think. It's been years.
Of course my wife misses all her friends too. She feels so isolated sometimes.
I can't go out with the kids much, only between my set hours, when I'm allowed out. They don't understand why. They ask me questions, like most kids. Normally as an adult you feel you can answer most of their questions, explain things, but in this case I know as much as they do. No more.
On the other hand no amount of explanation will be enough for my children when it comes to the police searches. They come and turn the whole house upside down. It scares my family.
I am an electrical engineer by trade. I used to love studying, thinking, learning. Now it's all gone. My mind is empty. And I can't sit still long enough to focus on anything.
I was taken to Long Lartin prison in 2005. The Home Office served me with a deportation order. They want to send me back to Algeria. But they can't guarantee me a safe return. Algeria won't sign the memorandum of understanding.
The Home Office don't tell me why they want to send me back, when it could be dangerous for me. I do ask why. They say I'm a threat to national security. How did I become that?
Thinking about things, one issue sticks in my mind. Remember that famous speech? You know, when Tony Blair said all the rules of the game are changing? My thoughts always go back to this. Well, is this all part of that game? Are we the scapegoats?
You can't even imagine the relief last week when it was decided I wasn't going back to prison. The Home Office wanted to revoke my bail, because they said I wanted to abscond. That was based on secret evidence. Any reasonable person can see that my life is with my family - I do the shopping, I care for my family, I take the kids out. If I wasn't here, who would do that?
I was really keen on sport once. I even did a gym qualification in prison, but my motivation has gone. It's hard to keep pushing, when you don't know what you are pushing against. I am here, like this, not moving forward, not going anywhere, stuck. I don't know why. I want to know why. It's natural to want answers. But everything on my case has been built on one thing and one thing only. I'm here today, like this, because of secret evidence.
With the permission of Detainee BB, this was read out, by the actor Andi Osho, at "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," a parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons, chaired by Diane Abbott MP, on March 30, 2009. The script was written by Saleyha Ahsan, and the material used was gained through a series of interviews.
You know me as Amer Makhlulif, because I have been arrested, but never charged, as a threat to the national security, and I was therefore afraid to disclose my real name for fear of threats. Amer Makhlulif was the name given me by the immigration officer when I sought asylum in the UK, as he was aware that there may be repercussions for my family, as there are for any family back in Algeria if the authorities knew I had applied for refugee status elsewhere.
After eight years in prison my incarceration was reviewed and bail recommended. During my bail, for eight months, under very strict conditions, I did abide by the conditions rigorously.
I truly believe that when my case gets to the European Court of Human Rights I will win. I believe in justice and although it is a long process to get justice I am patient. Justice takes much determination and dedication.
As I have said, I believe in justice and I would never abscond or run away from these proceedings. I am now 46 years old and I long for and want a wife, family and a stable life. I want everything to be resolved so that I can move on with my life. If I ran away I would be running forever and I would have nothing. I do not want this.
Education is very important to me - in fact my sole lifeline for the last eight years. This is the means by which I have managed to retain my mental stability.
When I was in prison I taught myself English to a sufficient standard so I could enrol in an Open University course. I achieved a degree while I was in prison and have just, after great difficulty due to my conditions, managed to enrol on a Masters course. My commitment to this is despite the difficulties I will have in studying without access to the Internet.
While I was on bail in Brighton I made very good friends who I admire and respect. I am very proud to have friends like these. I would never deceive them. They have opened their home and their hearts to me and I would never do anything to hurt them. This would include deceiving them, as it would be immoral and against Islam.
I understand that I have been held in custody because of secret evidence. I would very much like to know what the evidence is. If I do, then I can attempt to explain it. It may be a misunderstanding. I do not think it is fair that I do not know the evidence against me - it is to do with my liberty. I have racked my brains to think what it could be, but I truly have no idea.
We have to keep fighting this unfair system. We have to send this system of secret evidence to the rubbish bin of history. Tell my friends I miss them and to keep their spirits up.
With the permission of Detainee U, this was read out, by the actor Kate Dyson, at "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," a parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons, chaired by Diane Abbott MP, on March 30, 2009. The script was based on statements made by Detainee U, who has been a prisoner since 2001, and is now being held as a Category "A" prisoner in Belmarsh high-security prison.
My name is Hussain Al-Samamara. I'm Jordanian, and I'm 33 years old. I'm a husband and I'm a father. I'm a brother and a son. I'm a friend and I'm an artist. But I am not a terrorist.
To be honest with you I don't know how I got here. This was never meant to happen to me.
Lately I've been feeling so tired. I get headaches all the time, but I am gonna do my best to tell you my story.
I live in London with my wife and daughter. She is two years old. That little girl, with all that amazing curly hair, she holds me together. She's the glue to my crumbling world. I owe her so much.
I'll never forget the day I was arrested. For many reasons.
My daughter was just four days old, and we were having a gathering at home to celebrate the birth. It's a tradition. I had just popped out for five minutes. That's when it happened.
They took me to Long Lartin prison. The other men told me I was there because the Home Office think I'm a threat to national security. I thought they were joking. Me?
Then things stopped being funny. And I stopped laughing. That was when my wife first started crying. She hasn't really stopped for two years.
I left Jordan because of the torture. It was just too much to keep bearing. I still have the broken bones in my hand.
When I got here I applied for asylum. I thought I could start to live without fear and pain, but it didn't last long. You know, my ambition was to study. I had wanted to be a doctor, but that's all gone now.
Last year, when I was released on bail, my wife and I suffered racial abuse. I was shot with a stun gun and left unconscious. That was in Birmingham. My wife became agoraphobic. She was doing a Masters in business when I met her. There's no way she could do that now.
Now the Home Office wants to move me to Birkenhead. Refugees have a hard time up there. Can you imagine how it's gonna be for a so-called "threat to national security"?
Recently my father came to visit me. It was hard with all the strange bail conditions - like getting him vetted to come into my flat. He planned to stay longer but he left after a couple of months. It was too hard for him to see me like this.
Can you imagine for just a second how it feels to be taken, to be labelled, to feel so useless in front of your family, to have a whole government of a country turn against you, and you don't know why? They say they have something on you. They won't tell you what. You have no real way of challenging it, and so you have to live like this. I am here today because of this "something," because of secret evidence.
With Hussain's permission, this was read out, by the actor Derek Howard, at "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," a parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons, chaired by Diane Abbott MP, on March 30, 2009. The script was written by Saleyha Ahsan, using material gathered from interviews.
On Monday March 30, in a committee room in the House of Commons, Diane Abbott MP chaired a meeting entitled, "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," to discuss the stories of some of the men held as "terror suspects" on the basis of secret evidence, and to work out how to persuade the government to change its policies. A detailed report of the meeting is available here, and the profiles of five prisoners are available by following this link, but I thought it was also worth addressing a question posed by the meeting's title, and to ask if it is fair to compare the bitter fruits of Britain's anti-terror legislation with the iconic symbol of the Bush administration's "War on Terror."
In some ways, of course, it is not. The British government, while clearly complicit, to some extent, in the rendition and torture of prisoners by or on behalf of the Bush administration, and in interrogating them while they were held in illegal and unjustifiable conditions, was not directly involved in their industrial-scale rendition, in the establishment of a vast offshore prison devoted to coercive intelligence-gathering, or in the direct implementation of torture, under the cover of flawed legal advice which included blatant attempts to redefine its very meaning.
That said, there are, in fact, many unnerving similarities between the Bush administration's policies, which prompted universal condemnation on an unprecedented scale, and those implemented in the UK, which have caused barely a ripple of protest.
The similarities between Guantánamo and the UK terror laws
At Guantánamo, since January 2002, the US government has, at various times, held 779 men, mostly without charge or trial, who were picked up in 20 different countries but detained neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, to be tried in a recognized court. When, after three and a half years, the Supreme Court ruled that they had habeas corpus rights, the government responded not by allowing them access to the US courts, but by holding military tribunals, designed to justify their detention through the use of secret evidence that the prisoners - known as "detainees" - were not allowed to see.
In the UK, since December 2001, the British government has, at various times, held around 70 men without charge or trial, refusing to try them as criminal suspects in recognized courts. The policy began with the imprisonment of 17 men in Belmarsh high-security prison, but when, after three years, the Law Lords ruled that their imprisonment was in contravention of the Human Rights Act, the government responded by introducing control orders and deportation bail, both of which involve draconian restrictions that amount to house arrest. Throughout this whole period, the government has justified the men's detention through the use of secret evidence that the prisoners - known as "detainees" - are not allowed to see.
Another similarity concerns attempts by both the British and American governments to bypass their obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture - which prevents the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture - by reaching diplomatic agreements with various dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East. These purport to guarantee that repatriated prisoners will be treated humanely, but in reality they have proved worthless.
Deportation to Tunisia
In June 2007, for example, after the US government signed a "diplomatic assurance" with the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, so that prisoners cleared for release from Guantánamo could be repatriated, two prisoners who were returned - Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar - reported that they were threatened and mistreated in Tunisian custody. They were then subjected to show trials, apparently based on evidence obtained through the torture of other prisoners, and received prison sentences of three and seven years.
In the UK, the British government has been involved in a similar policy, signing "memoranda of understanding" (MoUs) in 2005 with Jordan, Libya and Lebanon, and attempting, without success, to do the same with Algeria, in order to deport "detainees" held on the basis of secret evidence, instead of putting them forward for trial in the UK. This is apparently because of the British government's refusal to join the rest of the world in finding ways to use information obtained by the intelligence services in court, while preserving the confidentiality of sources and methods (PDF), but it is difficult not to conclude that, in fact, the government has been swept up in its own rhetoric, and has actually lost sight of the correct balance between liberty and security.
There are further disturbing parallels. After the demonstrable failure of the Americans' "diplomatic assurance" with Tunisia, a District Court judge intervened to prevent the return of a third Tunisian - Lotfi bin Ali - in November 2007, arguing that he could suffer "irreparable harm" that the US courts would be powerless to reverse. Since then, no other Tunisians have been repatriated from Guantánamo, and, although the British government subsequently persisted in attempts to deport Tunisians from Europe, intervening in an Italian case, Saadi v. Italy, which was being considered by the European Court of Human Rights at the same time, the British attempts were struck down by the Court, which ruled, in March 2008, that attempts to return Nassim Saadi to Tunisia would be a clear breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment").
Deportation to Libya
Both the US and the UK have faced struggles with repatriating foreign nationals to Libya, not because of any difficulties either government has with its enemy-turned-ally, the dictator Moammar Gaddafi, but because courts on both sides of the Atlantic have intervened to prevent Libyans from being repatriated: a Libyan in Guantánamo, Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, has been resisting his enforced return since June 2007, and in the UK, attempts to return 12 Libyans accused of having connections with terrorism were scuppered when, in April 2008, as the Independent described it, the Court of Appeal "gave a damning verdict on promises" that two men - identified only as AS and DD - "would not be tortured in their home country." The judges ruled that the government "failed to give enough weight to the risk of torture."
What is particularly galling in the Libyans' case is that nowhere along the line has a single voice in authority been heard pointing out that those who once opposed Colonel Gaddafi's regime - and are now wanted in his dungeons - would, not so long ago, have been regarded as our friends, but that observation, of course, succinctly demonstrates an uncomfortable truth: that yesterday's freedom fighters can all too easily become today's terrorists when the winds of politics change.
Deportation to Algeria
Where both the British and American governments seem to be in accord - and seem also to be meeting with some success in their mission to discard the UN Convention Against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights - is with Algeria. Although some Algerians in Guantánamo - most notably Ahmed Belbacha, who had lived peacefully in the UK for two years before he took an ill-timed holiday in Pakistan - are still striving to prevent their enforced repatriation from Guantánamo, others are on record as having returned willingly, even though the fate that awaited them - whether freedom, or a bent trial followed by further imprisonment - seems to be akin to a round of Russian Roulette.
Given the choice of two evils, eight Algerians (see here, here, here, here and here) settled for Algeria over Guantánamo between July 2008 and January 2009, and the same thing has happened with a number of "terror suspects" in the UK, who, exhausted by the imprisonment and house arrest foisted on them by the British government, on the basis of unknowable and unchallengeable secret evidence, opted to return "voluntarily " to Algeria, with mixed results, as Amnesty International has reported (PDF). Some were released without charge, while others received prison sentences after dubious trials, and in all cases it has been next to impossible for human rights observers to monitor what has been happening with the kind of diligence that is necessary.
The British government - or the Law Lords, at least - know how shaky is the assumption that Algerians returned from the UK will be treated humanely and given fair trials, for two particular reasons: firstly, because the Algerian government has refused even to sign a worthless "memorandum of understanding" and has also refused to allow any British representatives to monitor what happens to those who are returned, and secondly, because, when the Lords approved the deportation in February of two prisoners - BB and U - they resorted, as I explained in an article at the time, to claiming that President Bouteflika has improved Algeria's human rights record, and has "acknowledged and approved a letter from the Prime Minster which included the statement that 'this exchange of letters underscores the absolute commitment of our two governments to human rights and fundamental freedoms.'"
In quiet desperation, the Lords also quoted the judges of SIAC (Britain's secret terror court), who had noted that "Very considerable efforts have been made at the highest political levels on both sides to strengthen these ties," and concluded that, as a result, "it is barely conceivable, let alone likely, that the Algerian government would put them at risk by reneging on solemn assurances." As I noted at the time, it was hardly reassuring that, if returned prisoners did find themselves abused, they could be comforted by the fact that the government, SIAC and the Law Lords had thought that such abuse was "barely conceivable."
Deportation to Jordan
And finally, while the US managed to return all the Jordanians it was holding in Guantánamo without apparent incident, the British government faced an even more uphill struggle to conclude that it most-celebrated would-be deportee, Abu Qatada, would be treated humanely on his return. In the same ruling in which the Law Lords declared that it was safe for BB and U to be returned to Algeria, they concluded that Abu Qatada would not be tortured, and would receive a fair trial - or at least, would not receive "a flagrant denial of a fair trial" - for two reasons; firstly, because, in October 2005, a human rights organization in Jordan "signed an agreement with the United Kingdom government under which it would monitor the due performance of the obligations undertaken by Jordan under the MoU," and, secondly, because "the fact that he would have a very high profile, coupled with the MoU, and the diplomatic capital invested in it, meant that the Jordanian authorities were likely to make sure that he was not ill-treated in custody or when he emerged from it."
The judges made their decision in spite of the fact that Abu Qatada had been previously tortured in Jordan, and had been convicted in absentia in a terror trial at which witnesses claimed they had been tortured to make false confessions. In addition, their ruling was disappointing because a "likelihood" that he would not be tortured is far from reassuring, and seems, instead, to be another form of Russian Roulette that plays games with a man's life and with the universal torture ban.
An unnerving conclusion
For now, the deportations of Abu Qatada, BB and U are on hold, pending a review by the European Court of Human Rights, which may mean - if both torture and judicial secrecy are regarded with the horror and scorn that they deserve - that the British government will eventually be obliged to abandon its blanket use of secret evidence and its labyrinthine attempts to circumvent the universal torture ban, by allowing the use of intercept evidence and reintroducing fair trials.
Ministers might also want to reflect that, although Barack Obama has not magically dismantled the legacy of the Bush administration's "War on Terror," he is at least committed to closing Guantánamo within a year, has established a review of the prisoners' cases that has started to approve the release of prisoners, and is continuing to allow judges - empowered by a Supreme Court ruling last June - to challenge the Bush administration's secret evidence, with the result that, in 24 of the 28 cases so far reviewed, the judges involved have ordered the prisoners' release because the government failed to provide sufficient evidence that they should ever have been held in the first place (a summary is here, and see here for the latest decision).
In Britain, in contrast, the government would still have us believe that all of its supposed "terror" evidence is infallible, and cannot be challenged, even though much of what is known appears to be misguided intelligence, or intelligence obtained through torture, and even though glaring errors on the part of the Home Office and the security services have been repeatedly noted over the last seven years. This not only makes a mockery of due process; it also leaves the government - and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in particular - looking like the last bastion of the kind of unprincipled and unfettered executive power embraced by former US Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington, the architects of the "War on Terror."
As Jane Mayer explained in her book The Dark Side, in the summer of 2002, when John Bellinger, the National Security Council's top lawyer, tried to approach the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to seek a review of the prisoners' cases - expressing some of the same doubts about the US intelligence services that lawyers have sought to expose in relation to the intelligence services in the UK, and that judges in the US have finally been allowed to prove in some of the Guantánamo cases - he was met with the sternest of rebukes, when a scheduled meeting was hijacked by David Addington, who declared, imperiously, "No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it."
Without fair trials for "terror suspects" in the UK, Jacqui Smith, like Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid before her, appears to be nothing less than David Addington's Anglicized twin, and in Addington's statement above, all that needs changing are the words "President" to "Tony Blair," and "enemy combatants" to "terrorists," and the picture is complete. In democracies founded on the rule of law, it is not sufficient for an elected minister to maintain, as President Bush declared for over seven years, that it was true because he said so.
I am a 42-year old married man with two children, who has lived in this country for almost 18 years.
I was detained in September 2005 under immigration powers, and I have been informed, to my surprise, that I am a threat to national security. Until now I have not been told what the allegation is, but I will challenge you - if you can bring any secret evidence against me that is true, and prove that I am a threat to this country in the past, present or future, I will plead guilty to any crime that has been committed and you can lock me up forever.
I believe that oppressing people, robbing them of their liberty, making their family and especially their children suffer by depriving them of their childhood is the worst crime of injustice.
For a country to be the beacon for the world it is not by military power or abuse of power or economic power - it is by its true and fair justice system for everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, country of origin, or their religion.
But I am very sorry to tell you the painful and bitter truth. Since 1997 I have witnessed this justice declining bit by bit, starting by passing unnecessary and oppressive laws, manipulating the media who in turn mislead the public, and the unfair legal rulings by a biased judge. This is far more dangerous a situation than the present economic crisis, because following this path leads to chaos and public disorder.
A nation without a fair justice system is a doomed nation. You may not see it now but all the signs lead to it. You need to act immediately to prevent it, and to save your country from such a disaster, if you truly love your country. If you think you are safe from this injustice - and this only applies to some foreign Muslims and it won't apply to you in the future - I say think again.
I advise you to look back in history and learn what makes nations strong and what destroys nations. History will tell you that nations are weak when they don't have strong and fair justice systems. I quote from Hermann Goering:
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.
It is claimed that I am "not conducive to the public good." Please give me the chance to prove this wrong. All I ask is the security to dedicate myself to the well-being of my family, and prove my worth to this society, where I have made my home for nearly two decades.
I invite any MP present this afternoon to visit my home, meet me and my family and discover that I am no different from any of you.
This statement was written by Detainee Z, and was read out, with his permission, by the actor Tom Peters, at "Britain's Guantánamo? The use of secret evidence and evidence based on torture in the UK courts," a parliamentary meeting in the House of Commons, chaired by Diane Abbott MP, on March 30, 2009.
- Torture taints all our lives
- Britain's Guantanamo: Calling For An End To Secret Evidence
- Five Stories From Britain's Guantanamo: (1) Detainee Y
- Five Stories From Britain's Guantanamo: (2) Detainee BB
- Five Stories From Britain's Guantanamo: (3) Detainee U
- Five Stories From Britain's Guantanamo: (4) Hussain Al-Samamara
- Five Stories From Britain's Guantanamo: (5) Detainee Z
- Britain's Guantanamo: Fact or Fiction?