No Comment — July 8, 2009, 11:13 am

A Renditions Scandal in Britain

In Britain a criminal probe is now underway into the torture of an Ethiopian who had been granted protected status and was then held for years in Guantánamo. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has also authorized a formal official inquiry. Now, a former Conservative shadow minister has invoked privilege by disclosing details of the British government’s complicity in a torture-by-proxy scheme on the floor of parliament. The Guardian reports:

In a dramatic intervention using the protection of parliamentary privilege, the former shadow home secretary revealed how MI5 and Greater Manchester police effectively sub-contracted the torture of Rangzieb Ahmed to a Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), whose routine use of torture has been widely documented. This is the first time that the information has entered the public domain. Previously it has been suppressed through the process of secret court hearings and, had the Guardian or other media organisations reported it, they would have exposed themselves to the risk of prosecution for contempt of court.

Davis told MPs that although sufficient evidence had been gathered to ensure Ahmed could be prosecuted for serious terrorism offences, he was permitted to fly from Manchester to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in 2006 while under surveillance… Davis said Ahmed was “viciously tortured by the ISI. He [Ahmed] claims among other things, he was beaten with wooden staves, the size of cricket stumps,whipped with a three-foot length of tyre rubber and had three fingernails removed from his left hand. There is a dispute between British intelligence officers as to exactly when his fingernails were removed, but an independent pathologist confirmed it happened during the period when he was in Pakistani custody.”

As Ian Cobain points out in a companion analysis piece, Britain’s turn to torture has a very clear provenance. It comes from fighting “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States. The Bush Administration’s torture philosophy and tools spread on contact through the British intelligence system. With evidence of the Bush Administration’s torture policies mounting, and with some British intelligence agents giving eyewitness accounts of the torture of prisoners in American custody, the Blair Government adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” policy. Its instructions to intelligence agents working with the Americans seem to have turned on shoddy legal advice that misapprehended the gravity of the crime of torture under international law and the formal obligations imposed to stop it.

These instructions took no account of MI5 and MI6 officers’ responsibilities under the UN Convention Against Torture. Philippe Sands QC, the professor of international law at University College London whose book Torture Team laid bare the origins of the Bush administration’s torture policies, says the instructions fall far short of what is required in international law. Sands points out that article 4 of the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, to which the UK is a party, criminalises “an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture”, and that the 1998 Rome statute of the international criminal court extends criminal responsibility where military commanders and civilian superiors “should have known” that international crimes were being committed but “failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures within his or her power to prevent or repress their commission”. The meaning of complicity, he adds, is clarified by a 1998 judgment by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Its appeal chamber treated “complicity” as being akin to “aiding and abetting” or “assistance” that could be “physical or in the form of moral support”. A crime could be committed even if the abettor did not take any tangible action, provided the actions “directly and substantially” assisted and where there was “knowledge … that torture is being practised”. According to Sands, the instructions “may have caused British personnel to cross a line into complicity”, and that ministers who approved the policy may also be culpable.

Sands’s analysis is correct–the conduct of the British agents likely made them conspirators or aiders and abettors in the crime of torture under international legal standards. All of which demonstrates the peril of cooperation with the Bush regime, given its criminal policies. But note all the judicial, legal, and parliamentary wheels turning in Britain, all flowing from engagement with the United States. What is happening in the United States itself? To our lasting shame, the answer is: nothing.

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More from Scott Horton:

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