Skip to content or view screen version

British Betrayal

Fahad Ansari | 16.07.2010 14:11 | Guantánamo | Anti-racism | Repression | Terror War

One of the hallmarks of the Labour government’s counter-terrorism policies in the last decade was the promotion of the concept of Britishness and British values. For almost ten years, the British public was subjected to endless speeches and lectures by government ministers propagating the importance of British values, responsible citizenship and the pressing need for integration. The target audience was of course, the Muslim community, whose loyalties to the UK were perceived as being susceptible to manipulation at best, and completely absent, at worst. Muslim community leaders were influenced with generous amounts of funding to promote the ideology of supporting and celebrating “our boys” fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Muslim youth were tarnished with the discussion-stifling label of “extremism” if they dared to believe in the supremacy of Shariah law over British law. No stone was left unturned in the Labour government’s efforts to consummate this forced marriage of Britain’s Muslims with the concept of Britishness. The message was clear: You were British first; your Muslim identity had to be suppressed.

Yet, at the same time as they were verbally promoting this ideological crusade, those very politicians, by their actions abroad, were stripping British Muslims caught up in the murky war on terror, of everything it meant to be British. Previously classified documents regarding Britain’s role in the rendition and torture of British citizens have now come to light through legal proceedings brought by several ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees. In confirming the allegations that former detainees have been making against the British government for years, these documents are a damning indictment of the forked tongue with which the Labour government had dealt with the Muslim community. For these former detainees (all British Muslims) their religion was the determinative factor in how they were treated; their nationality was irrelevant.

The declassified documents evidence how British intelligence officers, the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister himself were all complicit in the ill-treatment of their own nationals. Moreover, they are indicative of the duplicitous nature of the government when it came to the issue of British nationals detained abroad, who happened to be Muslims. Normal protocol for embassies and missions abroad where nationals are detained, irrespective of the reasons for detention, is to offer consular assistance. These men were never able to exercise this fundamental right.

By way of example, on 4 January 2002, a memo circulated to the secretaries of the junior Foreign Office ministers Ben Bradshaw and Lady Amos, as well as to the Foreign Office press office and the department's senior legal adviser, Sir Michael Wood, noted that the FCO should be "seen as applying our normal standards of consular assistance as far as possible". Consular officials had not seen these detainees, however, and "our holding line, that we are first seeking to establish identity details, is wearing thin", not least because extensive reports about one individual had already appeared in the press.

The note further advised officials to “where possible seek direct access to our detainees, wherever they are, in order to allay concerns about their welfare and to show that we are not denying them basic consular protection.” The motive behind seeking consular access it seems was not out of concern for their welfare, but rather to appease the general public in what was nothing more than an exercise in public relations.

In the case of Martin Mubanga, detained in Zambia, consular assistance was explicitly prohibited on the instructions of the Prime Minister’s office, out of fear that the Zambians would return him to the British government and he would be brought back to the UK. The orders were clear – Mubanga had to be surrendered to the United States. He was. He spent the next 33 months in Guantanamo Bay. His transfer was in accordance with government policy. A document disclosed by the Foreign Office, dated 10 January 2002, notes, "Transfer of United Kingdom nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to a United States base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives, to ensure they are securely held." The "only alternative", the document adds, would be to place these individuals in the custody of British forces in Afghanistan, or to return them to the UK.

At around the same time Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, was sending a telegram to several British diplomatic missions around the world in which he signalled his agreement with this policy, but made clear that he did not wish to see the British nationals moved from Afghanistan before they could be interrogated.

"A specialist team is currently in Afghanistan seeking to interview any detainees with a UK connection to obtain information on their terrorist activities and connections," Straw wrote. "We therefore hope that all those detainees they wish to interview will remain in Afghanistan and will not be among the first groups to be transferred to Guantánamo. A week's delay should suffice. UK nationals should be transferred as soon as possible thereafter."

Having one’s own government deny you consular assistance and then assist in your transfer to a prison camp outside the rule of law is enough to make the most patriotic of citizens surrender his passport. What then of a situation where intelligence officials from your own country interrogate you in that camp while you are manacled and hooded, and threaten to leave you there for years unless you confess to being a member of al-Qaeda. This is what happened to Omar Deghayes when he was interrogated by MI5 officials in Bagram. The dagger was plunged even deeper in Deghayes back when the officials told a senior American officer in Deghayes’ presence that the detainee had not been cooperating. "If he sticks to his story and just gives a few more details, we propose disengaging and allowing events here to take their course," the officer wrote. Deghayes was subsequently flown to Guantánamo Bay, where he stayed for more than five years. At one point he was so severely beaten that he was blinded in one eye.

What is emerging in these documents about Britain’s subservience to the US in this ‘war on terror’ is no news to those familiar with the accounts of the former detainees. The experience of the hood being pulled off one’s head only to be confronted with officials from Her Majesty’s Service is a common one shared by British citizens detained all over the world, including Moazzam Begg (Bagram, Guantanamo), Binyam Mohamed (Pakistan, Guantanamo), Alam ghafoor (UAE), Jamil rahman (Bangladesh), Salahuddin Amin (Pakistan), Martin Mubanga (Zambia, Guantanamo) and Shaker Aamer (Bagram).
Aamer is the last remaining British detainee in Guantanamo Bay, who has now been held without charge for over eight and a half years. He accuses MI5 and MI6 officials of being present and interrogating him at Bagram while his head was repeatedly “bounced” against a wall. Aamer’s lawyers allege that the intelligence officials “provided information and encouragement to his US torturers. They made no attempt to stop his ill-treatment or any enquiries into his well-being."

Considering the devastating impact that these revelations are likely to have on British Muslims, it is no wonder that David Cameron is appealing to the former detainees to enter mediation talks, rather than pursue the matter through the courts in proceedings which may take up to a decade. Cameron should understand that Islam prohibits Muslims from being bitten from the same hole twice. He will need to take substantial steps to persuade the former detainees and the other 1.6 million British Muslims of his sincerity. To begin with, he should demand the immediate and unconditional release of Shaker Aamer and bring him home. Nothing less will do.

Unfortunately for Cameron, he inherits the legacy of the Labour government which taught Muslims noble British values such as duplicity, deception and betrayal. As Nietzsche poignantly put it, “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you”

Fahad Ansari
- Homepage: