With what the Guardian described yesterday as the “almost unprecedented” release of “security service reports of interviews with detainees in Guantánamo Bay and other overseas detention centres,” the coalition government failed in its attempt to persuade the High Court to bring a temporary halt to a civil claim for damages filed by six former Guantánamo prisoners, unleashing, instead, a torrent of previously classified and deeply disturbing documents.
These reveal, shockingly, how the Labour government was happy for British nationals and residents seized in Afghanistan and Pakistan to be rendered to Guantánamo by the Bush administration, and how, in one case — that of Martin Mubanga, seized in Zambia — Tony Blair’s office intervened to prevent attempts by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to have him returned to the UK, leading to his imprisonment in Guantánamo for two years and nine months.
In paving the way for its announced inquiry into British complicity in torture, the coalition government attempted, without success, to persuade the High Court that, as the Guardian put it, “proceedings should be delayed while attempts at mediation are made” before the inquiry begins. Critics had already expressed their fears that the calls for “mediation” were a smokescreen for compensation deals that would attempt to buy the former prisoners’ silence, so that the inquiry could proceed in secret without too many embarrassments.
Instead, however, the government’s intervention has precipitously kick-started the inquiry in a very public manner, after Tim Otty QC, counsel for five of the men, said that proceedings “should be allowed to continue because the documents that the government is beginning to disclose shed new light upon the role that the UK authorities played in the men’s mistreatment,” and the judge, Mr. Justice Silber, agreed.
One of the most shocking documents disclosed in the High Court proceedings was issued by the FCO on January 10, 2002, the day before Guantánamo opened. Entitled, “Afghanistan UK Detainees,” it described the government’s “preferred options” in dealing with British prisoners. “Transfer of United Kingdom nationals held to a United States base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives, to ensure they are securely held,” the document explained, adding that the “only alternative” was to either hold these men in British custody in Afghanistan, or to return them to the UK.
In another shocking revelation, it was revealed that, in the case of Martin Mubanga, released documents “raise a number of troubling questions as to the role of the former Prime Minister’s office in frustrating the release of one of the claimants,” as Tim Otty described it, adding, “In the period of March and April 2002, the Prime Minister’s office apparently countermanded a desire on the part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to intervene on behalf on Mr. Mubanga.”
Mubanga, a joint British-Zambian national, had traveled from Pakistan to Zambia, where his sister lived, in February 2002, but had then been seized by the Zambian security services, and according to the documents released in court, the Prime Minister’s Office had intervened to ensure that he was not brought back to the UK. As a result, the FCO was put in a difficult position: if officials sought consular access, thereby acknowledging British responsibility for him, he would have been released to the UK authorities, directly contradicting the Prime Minister’s orders, which, as Reprieve noted yesterday, involved the Prime Minister “order[ing] the FCO to violate its international law obligations under the Vienna Convention, which requires the UK to provide consular assistance to British nationals around the world.”
At the time, an FCO document complained about “the schizophrenic way in which policy on this whole case was handled in London,” which had led to the British High Commission in Lusaka being placed “in an impossible position,” and in an email dated August 22, 2002, an FCO official, recognizing that “we broke our policy” because of direct interference from Tony Blair’s office, stated, “we are going to be open to charges of concealed extradition.”
According to Mubanga, after the British finished with him — apparently having tried and failed to recruit him as a spy — the US agent who had been dealing with him told him, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, as I think you’re a decent guy, but in ten or 15 minutes we’re going to the airport and they’re taking you to Guantánamo Bay.”
In court, Tim Otty highlighted Tony Blair’s complicity in torture by pointing out that, by the spring of 2002, it was abundantly clear that there was a considerable risk that terror suspects in US control would be subjected to rendition and torture. “Despite that,” he told the court, “someone at Number 10 saw fit to counter what the Foreign Office wished to do.”
As the Guardian also explained yesterday, this was “not the only time the Prime Minister’s Office intervened to thwart attempts by Foreign Office officials to obtain a degree of protection for British citizens.” Minutes prepared for the Home Office Terrorism and Protection Unit after a meeting in April 2002 state that the US authorities “had been informed that the British government might begin making public requests for legal access to British men held at Guantánamo.” According to the minutes, “FCO had wanted to do this (and wanted to be seen to be doing it) but had been overruled by No. 10.”
The released documents also highlight the leading role played by Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary, in shaping the policies that led to the interrogations of British prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan, prior to their transfer to Guantánamo. As the Guardian explained, in mid-January 2002, Straw sent a telegram to several British diplomatic missions around the world in which he “signaled his agreement” with the Guantánamo policy, “but made clear that he did not wish to see the British nationals moved from Afghanistan before they could be interrogated.” In the telegram, he wrote:
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. 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.
One of these “detainees” was Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held in Guantánamo, and as a court heard in December last year, leading to the launch of a Metropolitan Police investigation, Mr. Aamer has claimed that British agents were present in the room, in the US prison at Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan, when he was subjected to abusive treatment by Americans.
Other interrogations revealed in the documents include those involving Omar Deghayes, seized from a house in Lahore in May 2002, who was treated disdainfully by the British agents who visited him, and an unidentified prisoner held in Kabul, under the heading, “Warriors 14/1,” about whom the agents involved noted only, “Interview conditions: cold beaten up.”
Extraordinarily, these documents are only the tip of a very murky iceberg, and it is unclear at present how many more will be publicly revealed. As has been previously reported, the government has identified up to 500,000 documents that may be relevant to the former prisoners’ claim for damages, and, according to the Guardian, “says it has deployed 60 lawyers to scrutinize them, a process that it suggests could take until the end of the decade.” In this first batch, “just 900 papers have been disclosed, and these have included batches of press cuttings and copies of government reports that were published several years ago,” but as they also include these damning insights into the activities of Tony Blair, Jack Straw and the agents who interrogated British prisoners in appalling conditions, it is surely inconceivable that the government will now be able to conduct a secret inquiry into British complicity in torture, and must, instead, order a full and open inquiry.
This could take place under the Inquiries Act of 2005, like the Baha Mousa inquiry (into the murder, in British custody, of a hotel clerk in Iraq), which, as Reprieve noted when David Cameron announced the torture inquiry two weeks ago, was held under the Act and has been “a model of an inquiry functioning efficiently, including the hearing of secret evidence,” and has also allowed for document classification review proceedings that “are sophisticated and rightly allow the judge to balance the need for national security against the need for transparency.”
The time for silence, and the time for secrecy are over. To clear the air, and to draw a line under this most lamentable period in our recent history, we need an inquiry presided over by someone who is able to “balance the need for national security against the need for transparency.” For too long now — and with baleful results — the need for national security has been allowed to override everything else, inflicting grave damage on our claims to be a civilized country, and leading to devastating effects for those caught up in a “War on Terror” with few checks and balances.
Note: To see the released documents in full, please visit the website of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent dozens of current and former Guantánamo prisoners. The documents have also been made available by the Guardian. Please also note that, as well as Martin Mubanga and Omar Deghayes, the former prisoners involved in the civil claim are Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil El-Banna and Richard Belmar.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
As published on the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and CounterPunch. Cross-posted on Cageprisoners, The Public Record, Eurasia Review, Uruknet, Op-Ed News, Indymedia, The Smirking Chimp, Aletho News and Star Talk FM.
[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Ben Six. Ben Six said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: UK Sought Rendition of British Nationals to Guantanamo; Tony Blair Directly Involved – Extraordinary news rocking UK: http://bit.ly/dkGxWg [...]
Omar Deghayes on Torture and British Intelligence: Listen to first hand testimony of former Guantánamo detainee describing his interrogation by British Intelligence agent, “Andrew”, and others (MI5 and MI6) while held illegally in Pakistan, before being sold into US custody and rendered to Bagram prison in Afghanistan and subjected to torture.
[...] Andy Worthington has more on Blair’s complicity. Jeff Kaye also offers thoughts. [...]
No comments yet? Unbelievable. The revelations from the documents release are incredible.
I think the fact they tried to recruit Mubanga as a spy is important, as this is a little explored aspect of what was going on at Guantanamo and other black sites.
I have personal knowledge of an individual tortured some decades ago by a Middle Eastern country (I don’t wish to identify more, to preserve his confidentiality), with the point of making this person spy for them among his political group.
I believe both U.S. and UK governments have a reason to keep this aspect of the story very low profile.
Great work, Andy. I bow to you and Reprieve on the question of utilizing the 2005 Inquiries Act, about which I know very little. Certainly the kind of secrecy Cameron envisions for the inquiry is unacceptable. I’m also glad to hear someone in Britain make the point that the current suggestion for head of the UK inquiry is also unacceptable (if I read you correctly on this).
Do you have any thoughts on that other revelation the Guardian pointed out, about killings taking place in the rendition/detention operations?
Great to hear from you, as always. I agree that the spying recruitment angle is huge and almost entirely unreported. I touched on it in The Guantanamo Files, but even at the time was aware that I’d come across other reports of attempted recruitment in Guantanamo, or before, which indicated that it was a huge submerged story.
I haven’t had time to look at the “killing” aspect of the story yet, though I was glad to see that you picked up on it!
As for the leadership of the inquiry, yes, you’re right, I don’t think the current plan is viable. What’s interesting, as I tried to explain in the article, is that I think the revelations ordered by the High Court are defining the inquiry’s remit, as well as doing what the government didn’t want at all — making the information publicly available upfront.
Much more to come, no doubt!
A few comments from the Huffington Post:
Thank god the Brits are having these investigations; they may yet be compromised, but even so they show up ObamaCo’s authoritarian disdain for the law.
And thanks to HuffPo for publishing this article. The silence elsewhere in the US media is deafening.
Jerry Nadler is right; we prosecute Bush’s and Obama’s war crimes or we lose our country.
Via Dolorosa wrote:
I hope to see Blair and Co. in court as a result of this.
And I hope the same spirit of investigating this dark chapter of these disastrous wars finds its way to the US system.
this is fantastic news and I do hope that bliar faces criminal charges . . it is what he and the whole bush administration deserve . . .
Well at least there appears to a solid effort to bring some of these horrible practices and crimes to light.
Hopefully, the UK press seizes on this information and with the Public behind them forces a Public Inquiry to be held.
The US will probably do something when all the players are dead and gone 60 years from now.
Unfortunately Blair, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld got away with murder, quite literally — it is sad we could not put these men in jail, they are no better than the worst of anyone they might have put in Guantanamo.
Tony Blair committed a criminal act under British Law. He should be arrested today and brought to trial.
Hopefully they will ask for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield, Rice, et al be extradited as accessories to the fact! Heaven knows Obama is too busy looking to the future to look back at his evil predecessors for fear he too might be tried for his own war crimes!
The born again torture twins Bush and Blair are prime examples of the lowest form of humanity and without Blair’s enthusiasm and support Bush could well have been stopped from this barbaric and needless slaughter.
good news / bad news:
The press in England is being more aggressive than the US Press in trying to get to the bottom of the torture.
Some still believe that torture is acceptable, as long as the “good guys” are only on the giving end.
And some comments from Facebook:
Felicity Arbuthnot wrote:
He is an even lower life than we thought — a near impossible.
Ruth Gilburt wrote:
Andy, I don’t have the words … it’s almost more shocking than I could have imagined (if that’s possible) … This defies belief, honestly! I’m completely outraged!
Jacquelyne Taylor wrote:
Farcical that Blair is a Peace Envoy..?? Bit like giving Bush Presidency of MENSA
Yusuf Mohammed Abdullah wrote:
My opinion of Blair was low, but this is just disgusting, Middle East Peace Envoy ???? They may as well appoint Netanyahu.
Willy Bach wrote:
Yusuf, you said of Tony Blair, “They may as well appoint Netanyahu” as Middle East Peace Envoy — that is just what I thought too. This must be properly investigated at a public inquiry. Disgusting is not even a strong enough word. Blair and Straw and their whole Cabinet has betrayed British democracy — almost as much as Harold Wilson and Denis Healey did during the Vietnam War.
David Nicholl wrote:
I know I knew this stuff, but it is really absolutely scandalous+++
Abduljaleel Bain wrote:
I hope that justice will be both done and seen to be done. Many of us fought long hard actions for these prisoners when they were being detained and it will be as much a recognition of this as it will be a partial restoration of the rights and entitlements of those who have suffered. This kind of news is always a tonic to activists like myself. It makes it easier to recruit others to the cause. Thanks for this Andy and keep the good news coming.
[...] Andy Worthington [...]
Also on the Huffington Post, Itchybiscuit wrote:
Many people, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and lawyers for the British detainees have been trying to get access to this kind of documentation. Many of my countrymen and women have been under no illusions as to Teflon Tony’s complicity in Guantanamo Bay and the horrors conceived and perpetrated there. It is the fondest wish of the majority of Britons to have him presented before the Hague to stand trial for his blatant disregard for international law and human rights.
Reminds me seeing pictures from a poster exhibit in Japan (never in the US) by an American artist in which Bush with a swastika arm band is saying “What the f**k are you going to do about it?” I think Tony Blair is saying the same thing!!
Andy Worthington wrote: “What’s interesting, as I tried to explain in the article, is that I think the revelations ordered by the High Court are defining the inquiry’s remit, as well as doing what the government didn’t want at all — making the information publicly available upfront.”
Yes, Andy, I totally agree. It is this kind of unfolding dynamic that occurs when a scandal finally gets off the ground and transforms into a political force. At such times, what start out as attempts to cover-up turn into full-blown investigations.
This is what happened in the 1970s, when the U.S. Rockefeller Commission was meant to offer a kind of limited hang-out of CIA operations. But the info kept spilling out, and finally Congress was forced to call hearings, which were staffed by go-getters and some honest men. If in the end, the Church and Pike committees didn’t get to all the crimes, and left the criminals unindicted, the impact put shackles on the secret state for some years. Without the work of those committees, we’d really be in the dark right now.
Perfect analogy, Jeff. If we don’t get to all the crimes, and even if the criminals are unindicted, we need something with such an impact that it will “put shackles on the secret state for some years.” That’s what’s started here in the UK. Now we need a similar lever in the US … (thoughts trail off sadly into the void)
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