Reprieve and MPs Dan Jarvis and David Davis Challenge Government’s Refusal to Launch Official Inquiry Into British Complicity in Torture

21.10.19

Protestor – and US veteran – Bob Meddaugh with a powerful universal message at a protest vigil in Des Moines, Iowa, in December 2010 (Photo: Justin Norman).

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Last week, largely lost in the Brexit fog that engulfs almost all other political activity in the UK these days, the NGO Reprieve, and two principled MPs — Labour’s Dan Jarvis and the Conservative David Davis — launched a legal challenge against the government in connection with a recent ministerial decision to “abandon a promise to hold a judge-led inquiry into torture and rendition involving British intelligence agencies after 9/11,” as the Guardian described it.

Jarvis, Davis and Reprieve have submitted an application for a judicial review in the High Court as the latest step in a decade-long struggle to secure transparency about the UK’s involvement in the Bush administration’s CIA-led program of rendition and torture.

Back in July 2010, shortly after taking office in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron — pushed by the foreign secretary William Hague — announced a judge-led inquiry, as I reported here, telling the House of Commons that he had asked Sir Peter Gibson, a retired judge, to “look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11,” and noting that, although there was no evidence that any British officer was “directly engaged in torture,” there were “questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done.”

As the Guardian reminded us last week, he also told the House of Commons, “The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows.”

A judge-led inquiry was clearly necessary, because, since the first British prisoners were released from Guantánamo in 2004 and 2005, there had been persistent and disturbing claims that the British intelligence services had been complicit in their mistreatment, claims that were amplified from 2008-09, as Reprieve and the solicitors Leigh Day sought to expose the extent of British collusion in the mistreatment of the British resident Binyam Mohamed (finally released from Guantánamo in February 2009), who had been rendered by the US to Morocco, with specific knowledge that he would be tortured.

The announcement of the Gibson inquiry was almost immediately overshadowed by the public release of some truly damning government documents — as part of a civil case for damages brought by a number of former prisoners — including, as I described it at the time, revelations that Tony Blair’s 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.”

To stop the further release of a tsunami of embarrassing documents, Cameron’s government soon reached a financial settlement with the former prisoners (as well as with Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was not finally released until October 2015), and, with the prisoners effectively silenced, the intelligence services and the government clearly thought that they would be able to get away with a cursory inquiry. However, a number of NGOs and lawyers’ groups disagreed, first proposing some crucial guidelines for the inquiry, in September 2010, and then, in July 2011, when it became apparent that rigorousness and transparency were not in the inquiry’s remit, boycotting it and describing it as a whitewash.

As I explained in an article in November 2014, “Shorn of NGO involvement — and any credibility — Gibson’s inquiry limped on until January 2012, when it was cut short amid what the Guardian described as ‘dramatic, first-hand evidence of MI6 involvement in another rendition, that of two prominent Libyan dissidents, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi,’” who were kidnapped and rendered to the custody of Col. Gaddafi. Belhaj, at the time, was suing the British government, eventually (in May 2018) securing the apology that he and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, who was pregnant when she was rendered with her husband, had long been seeking, while al-Saadi and his family accepted a settlement of £2.23m from the British government in December 2012.

As I also explained, “Gibson managed to issue an interim report in December 2013, after examining around 20,000 confidential documents,” and, as the Guardian described it, he “questioned whether the UK had ‘a deliberate or agreed policy’ of turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of prisoners, and whether the two intelligence agencies were willing to ‘condone, encourage or take advantage of rendition operations’ mounted by others.”

At the same time that Gibson delivered his interim report, it was announced that the full inquiry would be handed over to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), and my article in November 2014 dealt primarily with a second boycott by NGOs — this time of the ISC’s inquiry. In a letter to the ISC, the NGOs stated, “We remain unpersuaded that the decision to cut short the work of the flawed Gibson inquiry and to pass the baton on to the ISC is an adequate substitute for the establishment of an independent judicial inquiry.”

In fact, however, under the diligent chairmanship of the Conservative MP and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, an evident opponent of torture, the ISC report, Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: 2001–2010, which was published in June 2018, was refreshingly robust (also see the accompanying report, Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: Current Issues, and the government’s response).

In an article I wrote following the report’s publication, I commended Grieve for his “determination to go beyond previous whitewashes,” but added that “what is clearly needed now is an official judge-led inquiry which will leave no stone unturned — and no senior ex-officials (up to and including Tony Blair and Jack Straw) unquestioned.” Grieve himself noted that the committee was “denied access to key intelligence individuals by the prime minister” (at the time, Theresa May) and so “reluctantly decided to bring the inquiry to a premature end,” very evidently indicating that a full judge-led inquiry is still needed.

Reflecting on what the ISC report had unearthed, the Guardian noted last week that the ISC found that “British intelligence agencies were involved in dozens of episodes of torture and rendition, mainly in partnership with the US” and that “the UK planned, agreed to or financed 31 rendition operations, British intelligence officers consented to or witnessed the use of torture on 15 occasions, and on 232 occasions agencies supplied questions to be put to detainees whom they knew or suspected were being mistreated.”

After Theresa May issued a public apology to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, ministers “invited submissions on what do next,” as the Guardian described it, “with a judge-led inquiry remaining an option, until it was suddenly ruled out by David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, in one of the last acts of May’s premiership.”

It is that decision that Dan Jarvis, David Davis and Reprieve are seeking to overturn, and, as the Guardian added, “those involved in the case suggest that a lacklustre initial legal defence from the government suggests ministers may not mind being defeated in court.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Jarvis, a former officer in the Paratroop regiment, gave his reasons for seeking the judicial review, starting that it was because he wanted the UK to show that “we respect international law, that we are honest and learn from our mistakes, that we are better than this.”

As the Guardian described it, “Jarvis argued that current events in Syria — [where] some Isis prisoners have been taken by the US from Syria to Iraq, while the fate of others remains uncertain as Turkey invades north-east Syria — highlighted the need to act with legitimacy.” As he put it, “Our responses to terrorism must be clear and must be legal.”

Jarvis served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he told the Guardian that, “in his experience soldiers behaved within the law, but there was evidence other agencies may have behaved differently.” As he explained, “Our standing in the world is not as it should be. Some people don’t care about that, but I do.”

David Davis didn’t comment, but it is good to see his return to human rights, after his ill-advised interlude as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (from July 2016 to July 2018). Prior to that — and now, it seems, again — he was prominent as the conscience of the Tory Party regarding the “war on terror,” and also played a key role in securing the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer as a member the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, visiting the US in April 2015 to meet members of Congress and to call for his release — with Jeremy Corbyn (before he became the leader of the Labour Party), his fellow Tory MP Andrew Mitchell and Labour’s Andy Slaughter.

In conclusion, I can only hope that the application for a judicial review is successful, and that the government is — eventually — compelled to conduct a full judge-led inquiry into the UK’s complicity in torture, because at present, sadly, when comparing the UK with the US, the former has an accountability deficit.

Whilst it is true that, in the US as in the UK, no senior figures have been held accountable for the horrendous rendition and torture program that followed the 9/11 attacks, the US’s system of check and balances at least led to the creation of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700-page report into the CIA’s torture program, which took five years and cost $40m, and while it is shameful that the full report hasn’t been made publicly available, the 500-page executive summary, released in December 2014, went far further than the UK government, obsessed with secrecy, has in exposing how far we all strayed from the values we claim to uphold in the aftermath of 9/11.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, about an application for a judicial review, submitted by the NGO Reprieve and the MPs Dan Jarvis and David Davis, regarding the British government’s refusal to hold a judge-led inquiry into the UK’s post-9/11 complicity in torture.

    This was first promised by David Cameron over nine years ago, but was never adequately delivered. An initial judge-led inquiry fizzled out, in large part after it was boycotted by NGOs and lawyers’ groups for its lack of depth, and although Parliament’s Intelligence and Services Committee (ISC), under the principled Tory MP Dominic Grieve, delivered a powerful report last summer, that too was stymied by then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s refusal to directly involve the intelligence services.

    When the notion of a new judge-led inquiry was floated last summer, it was turned down by May’s deputy, David Lidington, prompting this application for a judicial review, which, of course, I hope will be successful, finally shining a light comprehensively on how the UK was fully caught up in the US’s brutal lawlessness in response to the 9/11 attacks.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone taking an interest in this story. It’s shocking to think that we’re still having to fight for a thorough judge-led inquiry that was first promised over nine years ago, to deal with crimes that took place, in some case, 17 years ago. There’s sadly no more appetite for justice relating to the “war on terror” here in the UK than there is in the US.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Lauri Love wrote:

    Thanks for fighting and not being bowed by the scheming bastards

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Lauri. To be honest, with neoliberalism so out of control, and environmental collapse a reality, the struggle is all there is, but unfortunately too many people are too ground down or distracted – by jobs, status, rent, mortgages and the whole pointless world of consumer distractions and spectacle – to give the resistance the commitment it needs.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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