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Torture evidence: a secret between Britain and her allies?

Just one year ago, it was revealed that the intelligence services knew former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed had been tortured. Now the Coalition is seeking to introduce measures that would prevent the courts releasing intelligence-sharing information at all: thus ensuring that cases such as Mohamed’s are never again brought to light.
Aisha Maniar
28 February 2011

Just one year ago, it was revealed that the intelligence services knew former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed had been tortured.  Now the Coalition is seeking to introduce measures that would prevent the courts releasing intelligence-sharing information at all: thus ensuring that cases such as Mohamed’s are never again brought to light.

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Early last year, the High Court in London was the scene of an important case concerning what the Foreign Office (FCO) and intelligence services knew about the torture of Ethiopian national Binyam Mohamed, when he "disappeared” through extraordinary rendition between 2002 and 2004. Torture and collusion therein are serious crimes under international law. In February 2010, the Foreign Office lost its appeal against disclosure in this case, originally brought when Binyam Mohamed was still held at Guantánamo Bay. The information revealed that Mr Mohamed had been subject to, among other abuses, “sleep deprivation, threats and inducement”.

This case proved hugely embarrassing for the intelligence services and the Labour government, discrediting the work of the former and undermining confidence in the latter. The government’s dogged insistence on secrecy in this and other cases revealed it to have a greater interest in hiding collusion in international crime than protecting the public interest. The consequences of this case continue to reverberate a year on.

Last year the Prime Minister announced a forthcoming green paper, to be published this year, on intelligence in judicial proceedings. This will help to “protect the secrets of our allies and stop them ending up in the public domain”, essentially preventing cases such as those of Binyam Mohamed ever occurring again. This green paper is likely to be influenced by a case pending before the Supreme Court, an appeal from the recent case involving former Guantánamo prisoners which resulted in an out-of-court settlement last year, concerning whether closed proceedings can be held in such (civil) cases.

According to the Guardian, the green paper will prevent any future disclosure in court hearings of the work of Britain’s security and intelligence services. This may protect diplomatic relations with other countries, such as the US, but does not deal with the indefensible allegations made against MI5 and M16. The government and its agencies are not above the law. Where allegations of gross misconduct and breaches of international law are made, they must be investigated thoroughly and openly. National security and its cult of secrecy work against the public interest and right to know and the very fundamentals of a society based on democracy and the rule of law the government claims to uphold.

Given the gravity of this situation, various current and former heads of the intelligence services have, in an unprecedented move, spoken out in defence of their agencies’ record on torture. With a clear emphasis on preventing future diplomatic and political embarrassments, little attention has been given to the root causes that led to these allegations and some proven claims being made. The forthcoming Gibson inquiry into the UK intelligence services’ involvement in torture, announced at the same time as the green paper, may deal with and seek answers to some of the key questions raised over the past few years. This inquiry, however, which should start its proceedings soon, has already been criticised at length, particularly by NGOs, some of whom are currently considering boycotting it, as “they fear it will not be sufficiently independent, impartial or open to public scrutiny”.

The current government must make good on its expressed desire to “draw a line” under the practices of its predecessor, in a manner that is open and transparent. How are the British people to trust the Coalition, when it continues to keep the veil of secrecy drawn?

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