Even as the Chilcot Report lays bare the sad story of the UK’s decision to join in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a veil is still drawn over another dark aspect of Britain’s partnership with George W Bush’s administration.
For years now, the British state has barely acknowledged its alleged deep involvement in the abuse of terror suspects, and there has been very little in the way of justice for the victims of torture and “rendition” – the practice of abducting suspects without due legal process and transferring them to other countries or territories for interrogation.
Nonetheless, my colleague Ruth Blakeley and I have found that this involvement was direct, deep and longstanding. Moreover, most official channels have been closed to keep the extent of the UK’s co-operation from coming to light.
An aborted judge-led inquiry into British involvement in prisoner mistreatment uncovered more than 200 separate allegations of abuse, at least 40 of which were significant enough to warrant detailed investigation. Some of these cases have led to civil action against the British government in the UK courts, others have led to police investigations and criminal inquiry.
In response, however, the government has maintained its innocence in every individual case while simultaneously working to block the release of relevant information. There have been attempts to withhold publication of key documents in open court, such as those which demonstrate that British intelligence knew about the torture of prisoners by the CIA before participating directly in their interrogation.
Where British courts have refused to accept government attempts to hold hearings in camera, the government has offered substantial payouts without any admission of liability. Indeed, the 2013 Justice and Security Act, which introduced so-called “closed material procedures” into the main civil courts, gave the state the legal ability to keep details of British involvement in torture out of the public record.
Outside the UK court system, government officials have made regular representations to the US Senate to ensure that any mention of the UK was redacted from its report into CIA torture. Likewise, my Freedom of Information Act requests for official records have been met with a range of techniques to deny the release of information regarding British involvement in torture.
Individual cases, meanwhile, are not finding resolution. It was recently announced that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will not press charges against an unnamed intelligence official for involvement in the rendition of Libyan dissidents and their families to Colonel Gaddafi’s torture chambers as there was insufficient evidence to proceed. However, the CPS said that there was sufficient evidence to support the claim that the official in question had been in communication with individuals from the foreign countries responsible for torture and rendition, and that he’d sought informal political authority to do so.
The official wasn’t named explicitly, but it is widely understood to be Sir Mark Allen, a former director of counter-terrorism at MI6.
This decision is simply the latest instalment in the government’s attempt to hide its hand. But to be clear, despite all the obfuscation and murk, there is now a huge weight of evidence which points, undeniably, towards British complicity in these crimes, including renditions to Gaddafi’s Libya.
A matter of record
Alongside a number of investigative journalists, human rights investigators and legal teams, we at The Rendition Project have spent years documenting this evidence. Having gathered and reviewed what’s available, our conclusions are clear: Britain’s involvement in rendition and torture during the “war on terror” was deep, direct, multifaceted, and should now be considered a matter of historical record.
British intelligence and security agencies have worked hand-in-glove with counter-terrorism partners to identify and apprehend suspects and disappear them into secret detention where torture was endemic. Once suspects were in secret detention, British intelligence and security agencies were, in many cases, intimately involved in the torture which took place, either by participating in the interrogations, providing the intelligence which formed the basis of the torture, or receiving intelligence gained through torture.
In addition, British territory was used as a key logistical hub for the global network of secret detention and torture, with the UK facilitating the movement of suspects between secret prisons.
The evidence of this complicity is nowhere clearer than in the rendition of Libyan dissidents and their families back to the Gaddafi government. One memo from the CIA to its Libyan counterpart made clear that the agency was “aware that your service had been cooperating with the British to effect [Sami al-Saadi’s] removal to Tripoli”, and offered to step in to “render [him] and his family into your custody”.
Similarly, a memo from Allen to his counterpart in Libya, Musa Kusa – obtained by Human Rights Watch after the fall of Tripoli and submitted to the UN Committee against Torture – explicitly congratulated Kusa on the “safe arrival” of Libyan rebel commander Abu ‘Abd Allah Sadiq Belhadj and discussed direct British access to the detainee’s interrogations:
Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu ‘Abd Allah Sadiq [Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad … Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from Abu 'Abd Allah through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on Abu ‘Abd Allah was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.
Both al-Saadi and Belhadj have testified that they were interrogated by British intelligence officers once in Libyan custody, with further evidence that intelligence agencies sent more than 1,600 questions to their Libyan counterparts.
Al-Saadi, his wife and their four children were subsequently rendered and detained for six years. The dissident himself was beaten and subjected to electric shocks.
The UK’s involvement may have been one step removed, focused on supporting counter-terrorism allies in ways which would hide the British hand, but justice has nonetheless been evaded. It remains to be seen how and when the full truth of Britain’s complicity in torture and illegal detention during the War on Terror will come out.