Extraordinary rendition and secret prisons in the context of the Arab Spring

Would it be too naive to hope that the Arab Spring might have a positive impact on our ability to hold, and tenacity in holding, our government and its agents to account in their dealings with the Arab (and wider) world?

Ellie Violet Bramley
28 February 2012

With the recent collapse of the inadequate Gibson Inquiry, fresh allegations of UK-backed secret renditions and collusion in torture, and the recent submission by the Ministry of Justice of the Green Paper on Justice and Security, it is time to take stock.  The beginning of 2012 has seen fresh evidence indicating illegal activities carried out by our government in its dealings with the Arab world.  This kind of activity, and evidence of it, is not necessarily anything new - but perhaps what we do with it might, this time, be different. 

Evidence suggests that the UK have been acting in excess of what norms - of international (human rights and humanitarian) law and morality - would usually permit.  Crucial tenets of the Geneva Conventions regulating the conduct of parties involved in armed conflict, have not been adhered to.  The ‘War on Terror’ has somehow legitimised the treatment of daily life as a state of emergency, and so decision makers have felt empowered not to be confined by existing norms, but to act outside them in their dealings with foreign lands and peoples thought to pose a threat to western interests.  The criteria for ‘western interests’ has been woefully broad.

Secret prison camps, unlawful deaths in army custody, extraordinary rendition and section seven of the Secret Services Act - the beginning of the new year has served up some shocking examples of what our government has and is doing - and in our name.  We all have some notion that these things are happening but they are so often concealed that it is frequently impossible to identify any blameworthy individual and truly exercise our democratic right of accountability. Would it be too naive to hope that the Arab Spring might have a positive impact on our ability to hold, and tenacity in holding, our government and its agents to account in their dealings with the Arab (and wider) world?  

 This hope, naive or not, will become irrelevant if the Ministry of Justice's Green Paper on Justice and Security reaches the statute book.  This Paper would strengthen our government’s legal right to conceal its actions where torture and rendition are concerned.  Official secrecy, though arguably sometimes necessary, has potentially allowed serious criminal wrongdoing by agents of our government and by the members of our government who signed off on such wrongdoings.  Increasing the level of official secrecy allowed would only, surely, increase the possibility of wrongdoing?

It has been against a backdrop of suspicion, regularly aroused by western leaders and western culture, that hereto opaque incidents such as that reported by the Guardian this month, have been able to take place.  This incident, investigated over a number of years by the Guardian, centres around the discovery of a prison in Iraq that has been kept secret by the Ministry of Defence.  It was en route to this secret prison that one man died on board an RAF helicopter, reputedly beaten to death by RAF personnel.  The deceased was one of 64 men captured that day, a "high value target".  The men who had been captured comprised: three who were suspected of being officials of Saddam's Ba'ath party; four Iranians in possession of more than $600,000 and a letter offering bounty for each American killed, plus the remaining 57 who were considered suspicious enough to imprison simply for travelling on the same coach. By these standards all passengers on the 7 July London buses would have been imprisonable.

During these years Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhadj, both Libyan dissidents, were also the subjects of rendition and torture.  Both claim that not only were they rendered to Libya and into the hands of Gaddafi's regime, but that their wives and al-Saadi's children, all of whom were under the age of 14, were too. Mr Belhadj's wife who was pregnant at the time, was also allegedly subjected to ill-treatment.  Both claim it was the UK who signed off on their rendition and that the UK that is therefore guilty of colluding in their torture, knowing that rendition to Gaddafi's Libya would mean certain abuse.  

It was only when the Arab Spring in Libya led to the fall of Gaddafi that former MI6 head of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Allen's role came to light.  By chance, papers were found by a member of Human Rights Watch in Libyan government offices. In these papers, Sir Mark allegedly writes to Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi's then chief spy : ""I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq [also known as Abdul Hakim Belhaj, now Tripoli's military commander]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years."  As reported by the Guardian - "following the discovery, Whitehall sources with knowledge of the operation made no attempt to deny MI6 involvement, but immediately said it had been part of "ministerially-authorised government policy", a clear signal that a secretary of state had signed off on the rendition of the couple."  So far Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary, has refused to comment, but it can surely only be a matter of time until the Scotland Yard inquiry calls Straw in for questioning.  We are left wondering how many more incriminating papers there may have been that have not so far been found.

It seems that neither of these men, and certainly neither of their families was considered a threat to British national security. Both, it seems, were political opponents of Gaddafi's. Collusion with torture for security reasons is unacceptable, but collusion with torture for diplomatic motives is unthinkable. 

The UK is not alone in this deplorable behaviour - even as the pages of our newspapers have been heavy with our leaders' quotes denouncing the brutality of the Assad regime, it has become ever clearer that western dealings with him in the 'ally years' were far from savoury. With bombs continuing to fall thickly over Homs, Mehdi Hasan brought to our attention this week how the US, our ally in the ‘War on Terror’, in 2002 rendered a Canadian man to his birth-country Syria where he was unlawfully prisoned for six years and tortured.  It was flawed intelligence that linked Maher Arar to al-Qaida, but his torture was as real.

In the post-9/11 years, fear-mongering on the part of western governments in their representation of the Middle East to their constituents was frequent.  Of course, not everyone succumbed, but for many these ‘undemocratic nations’ were whitewashed as ‘rogue’, and their residents routinely described as, if not terrorist, at the least suspicious.  (All this whilst the west under-handedly funded the despots controlling them.)  The Arab Spring has been, and continues to be, a very complex phenomenon.  Its impacts are various and multifaceted.  Some of these are being felt continually through news feeds and Twitter, others will take longer to be fully realised.  One subtle change, still in its infant stages, is the change in the perception of the Arab world in some western eyes.

The face of the Arab world in the context of the ongoing Spring is subtly different from that which has gone before. Never before has the west en masse been able to feel itself so much 'on the same side' as visible and audible factions all over the Arab world.  Middle Easterners are, in their thousands, standing up against the same despots we have been taught to fear, and clamouring for the same democratic values as the ones we (continue to) strive for.  The face of the Middle East is one of varied and complex peoples who cannot be subsumed under the heading of 'other' and treated as such by our foreign policies.    

Now with some of these leaders overthrown, the UK and its security services must be held to account for the things they did in these years of suspicion. The Gibson Enquiry's replacement must be nothing like its older, ineffectual sibling. What replaces it must hold independent investigations with real clout.  Scotland Yard's Operation Lydd, into the Libyan men's rendition, must be thorough and far-reaching.  Both al-Saadi and Belhadj are now suing Sir Mark, who is alleged to have signed off on the rendition, in what will be the "first significant test of a little-known piece of legislation, section seven of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, which protects MI6 officers from liability for criminal acts abroad as long as their actions have been authorised by a cabinet minister." The results of this could prove key. For bright light to be shed on our actions in Iraq, the Iraq Historic Allegations Team must strive for real independence, or hand over its work to an official inquiry that has it.

More broadly, we must re-assess the way we deal with the Middle East both publicly and behind the scenes.  The same level of collusion with despots for self-interested purposes is, hopefully, not going to be possible, or at the very least will meet with greater outcry and holding to account on home soil.  

Our dealings with individuals and governments in the Arab world have, in the recent and not so recent past, been questionable at best.  Call me naive, but might the Arab Spring yet have a positive impact on our dealings with this much-misunderstood, much-maligned area of the world in the future?

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