Lawyers and Human Rights Groups Criticize Proposed UK Torture Inquiry, As the Government Fails to Address the Return of Shaker Aamer, the Last British Resident in Guantánamo

26.2.11

“Whitewash” is a powerful word, but when it comes to the British government’s proposed judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture abroad in the years since the 9/11 attacks, Amnesty International and a number of prominent British NGOs — including Cageprisoners, JUSTICE, Liberty, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Redress and Reprieve — are so alarmed that it “will fail to meet the UK’s obligations under international and domestic law,” as the Guardian explained on Wednesday, that they are “considering whether they should boycott the inquiry, due to be headed by Sir Peter Gibson, because they fear it will not be sufficiently independent, impartial or open to public scrutiny” — in other words, they are concerned that it will be a whitewash.

Ever since Prime Minister David Cameron announced the inquiry last July, deep doubts have been expressed about the scope of the inquiry and fears of a whitewash. Less than two weeks after Cameron’s announcement, Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith, wrote a letter to Gibson in which he called on him to step down from his role as the judge in charge of the inquiry, complaining that “his impartiality is fatally compromised,” and noting that, “As the Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISC), it has been Sir Peter’s job for more than four years to oversee the Security Services,” and as a result “he cannot now be the judge of whether his own work was effective.”

In September, the nine NGOs mentioned above wrote a letter to Sir Peter Gibson outlining their concerns, explaining that, as well as being prompt, independent, thorough and subject to public scrutiny, the inquiry must also involve the participation of the victims. “Survivors or victims must be involved in the process to ensure their right to effective investigation and redress, and special measures must be adopted to ensure this participation is supportive, safe and effective,” they wrote.

The NGOs also explained that the inquiry’s mandate must include “the need to hold accountable those responsible for serious human rights violations,” including, if required, senior officials. They wrote that the inquiry “must be able to pronounce on state responsibility for knowledge and involvement in the serious human rights violations that have been alleged and to identify any individuals responsible for such abuses, including establishing the responsibility of superior officers for crimes committed by subordinates under their effective control.”

These points were made forcefully in the September letter, but they were, however, couched in polite terms, with the NGOs “offer[ing] a number of constructive comments to ensure the success of the inquiry.” In contrast, in a recent letter from the NGOs, which followed a number of meetings with Gibson, the groups involved expanded on the concerns outlined in September, stating, in no uncertain terms that, as the Guardian put it, “the credibility of the inquiry risks being undermined by the high level of secrecy it appears will surround the hearings — at the insistence of the very agencies whose activities are being scrutinised.”

In particular, the NGOs expressed concern that, as the Guardian put it, the inquiry would “fail to meet the UK’s obligations under the European convention on human rights,” which “establishes standards that must be met by official investigations into torture.” These include “the need for a mechanism independent of government to decide what evidence should be made public, and powers to compel evidence.”

In the letter, the NGOs specifically warned that a higher level of public scrutiny is needed “to prevent any appearance of [the government's] ongoing collusion in or tolerance of unlawful acts.”

When David Cameron announced the inquiry in July, he stated that the reputation of Britain’s security services had been “overshadowed” by allegations of complicity in torture, and had decided that it was “time to clear this matter up once and for all.” Although the government had not been compelled to order an inquiry, pressure for it had come from a seemingly unlikely source — William Hague, the foreign secretary, who had spoken about it on numerous occasions when in opposition — and was driven by a recognition that, particularly with reference to Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was rendered by the CIA to Morocco (where he was held and tortured for 18 months) after being seized in Pakistan, and was then held in Guantánamo until his release in February 2009, there had been what the Guardian described as “a series of damning court judgments that detailed MI5′s knowledge of the way in which Binyam Mohamed was being tortured before one of its officers questioned him.”

This was all that had come out in court, and it had involved an 18-month game of cat-and-mouse between two high court judges and foreign secretary David Miliband, who had repeatedly (and rather desperately) warned that public disclosure of a summary of Mohamed’s treatment at the hands of the Americans, compiled by the judges, would endanger the intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK.

In February last year, the Court of Appeal brought his obstruction to an end and ordered the release of the summary, but much more of Mohamed’s story — including claims that he was visited in Morocco by a British agent, and by a prisoner-turned-informer captured in Afghanistan — remains barely reported, although it clearly needs to be investigated by Sir Peter Gibson, and is, in addition, information that, like Mohamed’s torture in Pakistan, is of importance to the public because it touches on questions of complicity in torture that should not be hidden from view in a country that claims to treat torture with the repugnance it deserves.

The case of Binyam Mohamed was the most high-profile case involving a prisoner who ended up in Guantánamo, but on a domestic level the government was also under pressure because of an accumulation of media reports  — largely in the Guardian — providing disturbing details of “terrorism suspects being questioned by MI5 and MI6 officers after being tortured in secret prisons around the world.”

They include Rangzieb Ahmed, from Rochdale, who received a life sentence on terrorism charges in December 2008, although he has claimed that, in the 13 months that he was held In Pakistan before he was returned to the UK to face a trial, he was tortured — and had three of his fingernails pulled out — by Pakistani operatives who asked him questions drawn up by MI5 and Manchester police, even though both parties knew that their Pakistani counterparts used torture. Ahmed has just lost an appeal against his sentence, on the frankly risible basis that, although “he may have been subjected to the ‘lesser evil’ of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, ‘torture had not been demonstrated to have occurred, and had been demonstrated not to have occurred before the sole occasion when Rangzieb said he had been seen by British officers,’” as the Guardian described it.

As the Guardian also explained, getting to the heart of what should be the inquiry’s remit, if there is not to be a whitewash, “Gibson is expected to examine the degree of ministerial oversight of such operations and the extent to which ministers and intelligence agents were complicit in torture and illegal ‘rendition’ of terrorism suspects from one country to another.”

There are, however, two more issues relating to the inquiry that are of concern, and that need to be resolved before it can begin, and both, at least partly, involve Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who is still held despite being cleared for release by a military review board in 2007, when President Bush was still in power.

The first of these concerns an ongoing Metropolitan Police inquiry into allegations that representatives of MI5 ands MI6 were complicit in torture. One, as the Guardian put it, “involves allegations that an MI6 officer was involved in the mistreatment of one detainee, who has not been publicly identified,” and the other involves claims made by Shaker Aamer, which were first exposed in a court case in the UK in December 2009, that British agents were in the room when he was tortured by US operatives in the US prison in Kandahar prior to his transfer to Guantánamo in February 2002.

When he announced the inquiry in July, David Cameron told the House of Commons that it could not start “while criminal investigations are ongoing.” One other investigation, into the agent who interrogated Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan, concluded last November with Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, stating that there was insufficient evidence to press charges, although he made a point of noting that a “wider investigation into other potential criminal conduct” was still ongoing. However, as the Guardian reported, “Gibson has indicated that he expects his inquiry to begin hearing evidence in March, which may indicate that he has reason to believe neither police investigation will result in criminal charges.”

Even if this is true, Shaker Aamer’s allegations of torture provide another obstacle to the launch of the inquiry, as it cannot legitimately begin while he is still held, because he is undoubtedly an important witness, whose testimony Sir Peter Gibson will need to hear if the inquiry is to have any credibility. The Guardian noted that, although Jamil Rahman, a British citizen, alleges that British agents “walked into a cell in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he was being tortured, but retreated, laughing, before returning to question him later,” Shaker Aamer is the only prisoner to have “alleged that he was tortured while British intelligence officers were present.”

Ever since the inquiry was announced — timed in particular to suppress alarming disclosures of the complicity of Tony Blair and Jack Straw in the rendition to Guantánamo of British citizens and residents, which were emerging, at the orders of senior judges, from a civil claim for damages against the government that was brought by seven former Guantanamo prisoners — the need for Shaker Aamer’s return has been pressing.

When 15 former prisoners reached a financial settlement with the government in November, it was revealed that Shaker Aamer was also included in the settlement, although there was, of course, no way that he could conclude the settlement while he was still in Guantánamo. In subsequent statements, former prisoners revealed that they had all pushed the coalition government for his return, alerting ministers and civil servants to his plight, and his importance to them, and apparently securing a promise that, unlike the Labour government — which, it was revealed, had neglected his case, while stating in public that they were pressing for his return — they would be pushing their US counterparts to release him.

Despite this, Shaker Aamer is still held, and while the nine NGOs mentioned above are right to press the government and Sir Peter Gibson to make sure that the proposed inquiry will not be a whitewash, it remains even more troubling that plans for the inquiry appear to be moving ahead without securing Shaker Aamer’s return.

To his lawyers, and to his supporters, Shaker Aamer is “the man who knows too much,” a fearless advocate for the prisoners’ rights, who knows an enormous amount about the dark secrets of Guantánamo, including the deeply suspicious deaths of three prisoners in June 2006. This almost certainly explains why the US government is reluctant to release him, and why the UK may not be in any hurry to have him back here either, but if David Cameron is to have any chance of drawing a lne under British complicity in torture, the immediate return of Shaker Aamer is just as important as the terms of reference for the government’s inquiry.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

18 Responses

  1. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Thanks for the excellent article, Andy, and highlighting the role in these proceedings that would be played by Shaker Aamer, who should be released from Guantanamo immediately.

    I noted problems with this inquiry from day one, as the following points from an article last July suggest, wherein I noted that there should never have been an acceptance of Gibson as head of the investigation. What follows is from that article:

    http://seminal.firedoglake.com/diary/58902

    The announcement of the UK inquiry has been met with a mostly uncritical positive reception in the U.S. And who can blame the American human rights, anti-torture and civil liberties movement? They’ve had to put up with the “don’t look back” policy of President Obama, not to mention the latter’s embrace of Bush-era positions on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, indefinite detention, support for the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, governmental secrecy, and even this administration’s own operation of black site prisons (run now by JSOC, not, apparently, the CIA)….

    While the sentiment is understandable (see a similar statement by Tom Parker at Amnesty International), even though we dearly need an investigation, it is not certain that the UK inquiry is exactly what the doctor ordered. The British press and human rights agencies, while approving of Cameron/Clegg’s decision to make good on their campaign promise and initiate an investigation into UK intelligence services complicity with torture, are dubious about the details of how the investigation will proceed.

    For one thing, proceedings will be held in secret. While the three-person investigating panel will have ample access to UK documents, they will not be allowed to study U.S. documents….

    The investigation panel is supposed to include Dame Janet Paraskeva, head of the civil service commissioners, and retired journalist Peter Riddell. No less a UK government critic than Craig Murray finds these two to be independent-minded and fair (though some question their experience in these matters). But Murray — and as we’ll see, many others — is concerned about the ex-judge Sir Peter Gibson, named to head the investigation.

    The 76-year-old Gibson is an odd choice, especially, as John Ware at BBC Panorama put it, “for an inquiry deemed to be fully independent.” He is closely linked to intelligence circles, as he is Intelligence Services Commissioner, responsible for monitoring secret bugging operations by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA). In the past, Gibson has refused to say how many instances of bugging have taken place, because it would “assist those hostile to the UK”. There has also been some criticism regarding Gibson’s propensity for secrecy.

    Peter Oborne at the UK Daily Mail has more to say about Gibson and “judge-led” “independent inquiries:

    “Sir Peter is a thoroughly acceptable figure to British spies because he has been Commissioner of the Intelligence Services since 2006, and was reappointed only last year.

    Most of his work is carried out away from the public eye, but I have heard no reports of Sir Peter asking probing questions of MI5 and MI6 bosses over the past few years, despite the publication of a mass of troubling material during that period.”

    This is not the first time Gibson has been asked to head a secretive investigation, as he also led the inquiry into the 1998 IRA Omagh bombing, after a BBC report that GCHQ withheld info from the police that could have led to an interdiction of the bombers. The report itself was, of course, kept secret, but there were many questions about how Gibson conducted the affair….

    A mixture of hopefulness and ominous foreboding emanates from British anti-torture human rights groups. Addressing worries that the inquiry will focus on lower-level interrogators and let government officials like former Prime Minister Tony Blair off the hook, London director of Human Rights Watch said, “To be credible and to get to the bottom of what went wrong, any inquiry must be as public as possible, examine all cases of alleged complicity that are brought to its attention and examine the degree to which decisions by UK ministers and officials contributed to abuse.”

    The British human rights group, Reprieve, who like the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights, sponsors many attorneys currently defending Guantanamo prisoners, noted a number of concerns about the proposed inquiry. Top on the list of concerns is the pervasive secrecy surrounding the investigation. Not only will they be held in secret, but only the Prime Minister can decide what will be made public in the proceedings or final report. “Under the Government’s plan,” Reprieve reports, “there is no formal mechanism for civil participation — so Reprieve and other civil organisation[s] will not be allowed access to documents and proceedings….

    Any real inquiry would make this public….

    The no-accountability policy of the Obama administration has proven bankrupt, and recent legal actions taken against Leso, James, and Mitchell are laudable and hopefully will provide a decent chill among those health care providers who serviced (or still serve) the CIA and Pentagon torture and human experimentation programs. The UK inquiry certainly is a response to a societal repulsion in Great Britain against crimes against humanity, and perhaps, at a remove, to the widespread hatred of Britain’s participation in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But it would be naive to believe that the British government, which sees itself as the best ally of the U.S. intelligence services, will open itself up to the kind of scrutiny needed — not without a fight. To agree to the form in which the investigation is now proposed threatens to direct the fight for accountability and justice into a blind alley. As Peter Oborne reminds us, we should remember that other “judge-led” inquiry/cover-up in 2003, when “Lord Hutton’s investigation into the death of government scientist David Kelly… failed to ask the right questions, while reaching conclusions that flew in the face of evidence.”

    In addition, instead of sparking a renewed bid for a real investigation in the U.S., which is the fond hope of many anti-torture activists, a limited hang-out in the UK will only stifle the movement for accountability in the U.S., as enthusiasm for an open inquiry and prosecutions of high government officials is buried by demoralization and a feeling of futility.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. Activists can support the moves by Britain to have an investigation into Britain’s role in torture, while demanding that it be a real investigation, with open, televised hearings (as much as is feasible), the inclusion of civil organizations, such as Reprieve, and a published protocol that includes a programmatic insistence that all lines of evidence will be followed, no matter how high up the governmental ladder such inquiry leads, and no matter what other countries’ crimes may also be implicated. One could start by refusing to accept the appointment of Peter Gibson as head of the investigating panel.

    Those who sponsored, support, and defend the torture and rendition programs of the past ten years must feel the noose of real justice tightening ever further around them, and they will fight with all their might and subterfuge to protect themselves and the monopoly of state violence and terror they administer. We must take this opportunity and push even harder to have a real investigation, one that will truly bring justice, and a giant step toward the complete abolition of torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment of prisoners everywhere. That was the program of the European and American Enlightenment, and over 200 years later, it must be our program, too.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeff. Excellent reminder of some of the glaring problems. What encourages me is, if nothing else, the public profile the torture story has here in the UK, the vocal critics of the government – including certain lawyers – and the focus in the media, in particular the Guardian, and also Channel 4 News and the Independent. I suspect that any attempt at a whitewash will be met with decisions to publicize the stories anyway. It’s not as if the former Guantanamo prisoners have been gagged in any way, fortunately …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, Re-posted. This inquiry looks as though it was designed to cheat the public of the important information they have a right to know. They will need to go through the expensive and traumatic process of repeating this as they did with the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

    The true face of David Cameron is coming out and it is a lot uglier than his pictures.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    I tell you now it will be the biggest whitewash… they won’t give you what you want re terms of reference…I am buoycotting Scottish Inquiry for sure…whitewash IS the word!!! Don’t expect accountability… people pour their hearts out then recommendations are ignored… its a good way of them seeing what evidence you have but anything that suggest accountibility gets pulled as not in the remit to find nmegligence wrongdoing…

    At least you have NGOs supporting you… we have no NGO’s …not even Amnesty supporting lol…people bought the propaganda about it being an “unavoidable accident” which makes me physically sick……No-one cares about the death of 2,000 British citizens as a result of human rights abuses… no govt inquiry for “the worst medical treatment disaster in the history of the NHS” as it would reveal profit over safety, gross safety violations, complicity in torture re US prisons and medical experimentation against the Nuremberg code…

    By the way they pulled the “public interest immunity” crap ON us too to hide evidence which we still can’t access and what documents we did get under FOI they pulled the names of course…

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Ed Rynearson wrote:

    January 20, 2011 – BBC
    Galloway accusing Campbell of murdering Kelly should have been the headline
    http://eddieleaks.org/2011/01/29/galloway-accusing-campbell-of-murdering-kelly-should-have-been-the-headline/

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ed, Carol Anne and Willy, and everyone who “liked.” It’s important to keep awareness of the planned whitewash alive — and Willy, I know what you mean about Cameron, but I can’t even bear to look at him anymore under any circumstances. There’s something about that pinched mouth of his, the barely hidden fury, like a black hole out to swallow up everything.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria Allison wrote:

    Sounds like you have the same sort of reaction to Cameron that I have to Dick Cheney.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    I have decided to write to UN to complain about the fact that there is no adequate mechanism to investigate human rights abuses regarding UK citizens (which includes those carried out by US on UK citizens)… therefore our govt has no right to criticise the human rights abuses of other countries when our own system fails the public!!! Total hypocrisy… Speaking to my lawyers again tomorrow to see where we can go on this one…and back on to Heather at Private Eye… ;)

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Posted your article in UK non-compliance group… we should all consider buoycotting/withdrawing support for public inquiries until the system is changed to include negligence and accountibility…

    https://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_112108785520948&ref=notif&notif_t=group_activity

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria, I have the same reaction to Dick Cheney too — although it’s less of a problem these days, as he doesn’t turn up as relentlessly as Cameron, who has an opinion on everything (and sufficient arrogance so that he fails to notice that he’s not even that bright).
    Reminding me of Cheney, however, is enough to give me the chills. A dangerous right-wing ideologue throughout his political career, who genuinely turned to the “dark side” — and took America with him — after the 9/11 attacks.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks again, Carol Anne. The danger for the government, I think, is that, if they insist on making the torture inquiry into a whitewash, there are enough well-connected people here — in NGOs and the media — to put a wealth of embarrassing material out in public anyway. It could be “The Real Gibson Inquiry”!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Andy… Check RT interview below re early Rumsfeld and Cheney cover-up re CIA experiments… am meeting Hank next month in London re more recent US govt experiments… US human rights abuses have a long history whether it be on a French village, on US citizens in Florida, experiments in US prisons or human rights abuses in Guantanamo… you are welcome to meet with us if you want any older background material/historical perspective……

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QM20dFhRR20

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Let me know when you’ll be in London. I’ll see what I can do.

  14. Lawyers and Human Rights Groups Criticize Proposed UK Torture Inquiry, As the Government Fails to Address the Return of Shaker Aamer, the Last British Resident in Guantánamo | Andy Worthington « Yahyasheikho786's Blog says...

    [...] Lawyers and Human Rights Groups Criticize Proposed UK Torture Inquiry, As the Government Fails to Ad…. [...]

  15. NGO Letter to Chair of UK Torture Inquiry, Raising Concerns About Possible Whitewash « Eurasia Review says...

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  16. Sarah Gillespie says...

    [...] legal reason for his continued incarceration. He has never been charged with a crime and there is no reliable evidence against him. After seeing Andy and Polly’s film I was haunted by Aamer’s plight, by the suffering of his [...]

  17. Sarah Gillespie Plays Her Song About Shaker Aamer, “How the West Was Won,” Live in London (with Gilad Atzmon) | Save Shaker Campaign says...

    [...] legal reason for his continued incarceration. He has never been charged with a crime and there is no reliable evidence against him. After seeing Andy and Polly’s film I was haunted by Aamer’s plight, by the suffering of his [...]

  18. Sarah Gillespie: ‘How The West Was Won’ | Uprootedpalestinians's Blog says...

    [...] legal reason for his continued incarceration. He has never been charged with a crime and there is no reliable evidence against him. After seeing Andy and Polly’s film I was haunted by Aamer’s plight, by the suffering of his [...]

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