Britain’s insane secret terror evidence


A month ago, when Britain’s Law Lords ruled that three men who have each spent between six and eight years imprisoned without charge or trial, or held without charge or trial under strict bail conditions amounting to house arrest, could be deported to their home countries, even though there was a risk — or, perhaps, even a probability — that they would be tortured or subjected to ill-treatment, the British media briefly woke up to the story. This was almost exclusively because one of the men was Omar Mahmoud Othman (more commonly known as Abu Qatada), a man routinely described as “al-Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador in Europe,” even though this claim has never been tested in a court of law.

The Law Lords’ ruling was immediately challenged by the men’s lawyers, and their deportation halted while an appeal is made to the European Court of Human Rights, but the following day there was tabloid outrage when Qatada and 10 other men were awarded around £26,000, plus £53,000 in legal costs, as compensation for their detention without charge or trial in Belmarsh, between December 2001 and March 2005, which, the judges ruled, had breached their human rights.

Qatada’s share, which was flashed up in headlines across the nation, was £2,500, considerably less than the £170,000 he had been seeking, and, as the Guardian explained, “the judges said the detainees’ cash compensation was ‘substantially lower’ than in previous cases of ‘unlawful detention,’” because “they recognised that the government’s detention scheme was ‘devised in the face of a public emergency, and as an attempt to reconcile the need to protect the UK public against terrorism with the obligation not to send the applicants back to countries where they faced a real risk of ill-treatment.’”

Despite the widespread disgust in the media, the Independent pointed out, to those who could see beyond the narrow rhetoric, that the ECHR was only upholding the Law Lords ruling in 2004 that the government’s action in imprisoning Qatada and the other men had been “disproportionate and unlawful,” and added, “Unpleasant as Qatada is, there was no evidence (certainly none that would stand up in a regular court) that he had broken the law since arriving in Britain in 1993. The government’s response to this lack of proof was to lock him up indefinitely under the authority of a secret immigration tribunal, thus undermining the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned. This £2,500 payout is more than the loathsome Qatada deserves, but it is a small price to pay if it helps to preserve our civil liberties from the assaults of a government that seems unable to comprehend the very concept.”

Outside of this bold editorial, few other major media outlets focused on the bigger picture: whether it was justifiable to risk contravening the UN Convention Against Torture by sending people back to countries where they could be tortured, and, even more critically, the reason why they had been imprisoned without charge or trial (and, latterly, under house arrest), which was, simply, because the government refused to follow the rest of the world in finding a way to test the supposed evidence it had in a court of law, whilst also protecting its intelligence sources (PDF).

No one cared either about the other two men — known only as RB and U — or others possibly facing similar deportation orders in decisions that will be made in the coming weeks by the Special Immigration Appeal Court (SIAC), a place where the secrecy that underpins the whole of Britain’s Guantánamo-style regime is most clearly seen in the role of the Special Advocates. These are lawyers appointed to act on behalf of the prisoners in closed court sessions (deemed essential for reasons of national security), but who are then not allowed to breathe a word about what has taken place either to the prisoners or to their lawyers.

Three weeks ago, few media outlets even noticed when, as a result of the ECHR appeal, the government testily urged SIAC to revoke the bail orders of RB and U — and of three others, known only as Y, Z and VV — which established their confinement under strict conditions amounting to house arrest, and to order their imprisonment, yet again, in Belmarsh, on the basis that, since the Law Lords’ ruling, there was allegedly a greater risk of them absconding. When the judge, Mr. Justice Mitting, refused, arguing instead that the bail conditions were sufficient until SIAC was able to complete a thorough review of the men’s cases, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, intervened in the most extraordinary manner, kidnapping U and VV as they were delivered to their homes, seizing the other three men in house raids, and delivering them all to Belmarsh, without informing their lawyers or their families in advance.

The following day, Mr. Justice Mitting responded with admirable restraint, refraining from savaging the government for riding roughshod over his ruling, and ordering the release of all but one of the men, with the promise that the reasons for holding this last man, U, in Belmarsh, which apparently relied on brand-new “secret evidence” in the possession of the government, would be reviewed the following week.

When SIAC reconvened two weeks ago, to consider in more detail the government’s reasons for claiming that U should be held in Belmarsh, rather than under the strict bail conditions in which he has been held since July 2008, another extraordinary story of governmental hyperbole and ineptitude unfolded.

Unlike some of the detainees held under control orders, who have been deliberately moved by the government to barely habitable flats in deprived areas of the UK, where they face racist hostility and can also be harassed with impunity by the government’s agents, who can raid their homes in security checks at any time of the day or night, and can accuse the men of allegedly breaking their bail conditions without the presence of inconvenient witnesses, the detainee known only as U was — after much negotiation with the government — allowed to take a room in a house in a well-known town in southern England in which other rooms are let to students, where he has the support not only of the homeowner, but also of other members of the local community.

An educated man with an inquiring mind, U had already undertaken a degree course while imprisoned, and responded to the strict curfew imposed on him, which, effectively, held him in the house permanently, with no opportunities whatsoever to go outside, by embarking on a Masters course with the Open University in European Governance. In recent months, however, the Treasury Solicitors, who are responsible for approving routes that prisoners under house arrest may make as pedestrians, had allowed him to leave the house for an hour twice a week.

It was a sign of the government’s disproportionate response to the purported threat posed by U that, for these short, bi-weekly excursions, he had to be accompanied by two members of his support team (his friends, who have to be security-cleared by the government) as well as four Home Office representatives — two walking behind, and two following in a car.

When SIAC heard the government’s “secret evidence,” which was supposed to justify U’s return to Belmarsh, observers were appalled to discover that the argument put forward by Robin Tam QC, the Treasury Solicitor, was that, even though the route had been approved by his own government department, there was allegedly a risk that U would abscond because the route passed by a main road, was two km from a railway station, and was not far from a number of ports. Quite how this bookish man was supposed to overwhelm four Home Office representatives and make a run for it was not explained.

In a statement, U responded by stating, “My sole lifeline in prison and on bail has been education. If I intended to abscond I would have not enrolled on an MA course. I would never abscond or run away from the proceedings.” He added, “I believe in justice,” and also pointed out, “It is not fair that I do not know the secret evidence against me.”

Witness statements in support of U came from several of the people who have come to know him, including the man whose house he shares, who described him as “my very good friend,” noted that he “has taken a keen interest in all subjects,” and added, “When I had an accident, Mr. U cared for me and cooked as I was unable to.” He also stated that U “has never broken bail conditions,” and that he “would not go to areas around the house where there was no signal” from the tag he is required to wear, and declared, “I truly believe he will not abscond. I hope he is allowed to continue to live in my home.”

Beyond the ludicrous scenario of U’s purported escape route, the prosecution’s case essentially focused on the government’s claim that U’s bail conditions were “difficult to manage,” and that the address, unlike the vulnerable hovels mentioned above, was “unmanageable.” What this means is that U is not isolated, as the government wishes. His host has had great difficulty finding students to rent other rooms in his house, not only because they are prohibited from having computers on the premises, but also because they have to put up with regular raids by up to seven Home Office representatives (who, as one of U’s support team explained, have “made no effort to get to know anyone, declaring from the start that they would not be working as a team with us, rather telling us what they would and would not permit”), seeking evidence that U is about to abscond, or is using a computer or a mobile phone. Given U’s close circle of friends, however, in addition to the other tenants, the reality, for the Home Office, is that its paranoia-fuelled raids are regularly monitored by witnesses, who watch in horror as they turn over the contents of the house, searching in vain for evidence that U is doing anything other than minding his own business and waiting — apparently in vain — for anything resembling justice.

A recent example of the Home Office’s approach took place during one of these raids, when, as another member of U’s support team noted in a letter to SIAC, four maps — of Brighton, the London bus network, Maidstone and Dieppe — were taken (although the writer also noted that, in an anonymous report about the raid, submitted to the court as part of the “secret evidence,” the Maidstone map was described as a map of Folkestone instead). “It is not clear why these four were mentioned,” U’s friend wrote. “Given the overall context, one can only assume that the writer of the document thought such maps might indicate an ‘escape route,’ although since no ferries operate between Folkestone (let alone Maidstone!) and Dieppe, he would have had some difficulty with such a route. But in any case, it is hard to see why the Home Office would see an escape to France as a problem, since it regards his presence in the UK as a threat to national security, and is anxious to deport him.”

He added, “While the report implies that these maps were found in isolation, as though they had been put together in readiness for an escape, nothing could be further from the truth. [The] house contains many hundreds of books and maps, and the maps confiscated by the immigration officials on that day were taken from a large pile of maps on the first floor landing; it appears that they selected those four from the pile for some reason — perhaps to deliberately give the impression referred to above, or for some other unknown purpose. It is of course possible that the intention was simply to demonstrate that such items were available in the house should U wish to take them, and this is consistent with the description in the document of the house as ‘difficult to manage.’ If this is the case, I have no doubt that [the landlord] and other members of the support group would be happy to help the immigration staff identify, in advance of any future searches, any such items in the house that are considered in any way ‘sensitive’ or ‘dangerous,’ and arrange for them to be stored somewhere outside U’s reach.”

Reviewing the government’s “secret evidence,” Mr. Justice Mitting again responded with admirable restraint, hinting that, if there were problems with where U was living, then another bail address could be found, but he made it clear that the government had not established a reason to revoke his bail. However, rather than making a ruling at the time, he said that he would wait until all the cases had been reviewed. This, he said, would take about three weeks, and he added that he would notify the men’s solicitors of his decision by letter, rather than in the court.

You will, I hope, forgive me if my conclusion seems to be rather harsh about the government’s actions, but it seems clear to me that the government is particularly annoyed about U’s case because a number of British citizens, appalled by their own elected representatives’ refusal to adhere to what the Independent correctly called “the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned,” have responded by standing together to protect a man they have come to know from further arbitrary punishment, which, to the government’s displeasure, has involved keeping a close eye on its activities.

To my mind, this is nothing more than British citizens exercising their right to monitor their own government, and, as with the men held at Guantánamo, if the government doesn’t like it, it can do the right thing: put the men on trial, find a way to produce evidence that does not compromise its sources, and allow this evidence to be challenged in a fair and open manner. Otherwise this cruel farce will continue, seemingly without end, wreaking havoc on the mental health of those subjected to the government’s whims, endangering our commitments to oppose all use of torture, undermining 800 years of habeas corpus, and incredibly, requiring that we accept at face value the assertions by politicians and the intelligence services that their supposed evidence is beyond reproach, and that they are incapable of making mistakes.

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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As written exclusively for Cageprisoners.

Note: For further information on Detainee U, see “Besieged in Britain,” Victoria Brittain’s excellent article in Race & Class (PDF) and the statement here.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009).

10 Responses

  1. Ann Alexander says...

    The recent UN report
    is very critical of the UK’s way of dealing with these men. It says “States begin preferring to use undisclosed evidence gathered by intelligence agents in administrative proceedings over attempts to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial. Seen in the light of the inherent limitations of intelligence information, preventive measures that deprive a person of his or her liberty must not be based solely on intelligence. In these cases, intelligence has to be turned into concrete evidence and proof after a period of time so that the affected person can challenge the evidence against him or her. If intelligence cannot be transformed into evidence over time, or the State fails to obtain new evidence, the preventive measures need to cease.”
    Considering the political court, SIAC, had actually decided not to revoke the bail on RB, U, VV, Z and Y and sent them home whereby they were kidnapped on the authority of the Home Secretary and held overnight until an emergency hearing the next day makes one wonder about the authority of the Judge.
    Someone had to be made a scapegoat to appease the Home Secretary and U was the person chosen by SIAC.
    Now the men await their fate with the extremely worrying prospect that their wives could be left again on their own to cope with the children without any support.
    Claims by the Algerians’ solicitors that they would face inhumane treatment and perhaps torture if returned to their home countries has been ignored by SIAC with evidence of previous returnees being abused, totally ignored and in fact discredited. One of the returnees, Detainee Q, who eventually was given an 8 year prison sentence bravely wrote to Judge Ousely – “Dear Sir Osliy. To SIAC court my name [Q] former long lartin detainee I rhite you this wourd to let you no that my life here in Algeria in danger first I wastorture betaine humilition in police station. Second here in Serkadji prison life here like slave. Algerian otority thay give a garanty but thay brook the agreement. So Mr judj Osly stop deportation to Algeria in end I wont let you no that eneythink happen to ….. here in Algeria Britich otority responssable for life. Thank you, Detainee Q.”
    SIAC’s response?
    “While the possibility that he was ill-treated cannot wholly be dismissed it is no more than a mere possibility. This new allegation does not persuade us that there exists a real possibility that any of the 4 appellants with whose cases we are concerned will be tortured or ill-treated on return. Put in the language used by the Strasburg Court, this material does not give rise to substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that they would be subjected to treatment which would infringe Article 3 if it were to occur in a Convention state”.
    These 4 Algerian men and one Jordanian whose cases are in SIAC at the moment are in a no-win situation unless people start taking notice and the media show an interest. Perhaps they should look in to the possibility that the secret evidence heard in closed sessions in SIAC, considering Binyam Mohamed’s terrible tale, is evidence extracted through torture.
    To find the light, we need only remove the darkness which is blocking the light. The fight goes on.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you so much, Ann, for highlighting the criticism in the UN’s recent report. I completely agree about the need to be able to test the government’s so-called evidence, as obtained by the intelligence services, and hope to be able to write more in the near future about how we’re allowing our leaders to torment these men with impunity, even though some of the so-called evidence was clearly extracted through torture.
    Thanks also for mentioning the letter written by Q and SIAC’s lame and inappropriate response. The Law Lords took a similar view a month ago, and I dissected the weaknesses in their argument here:

  3. Eleanor Boyd says...

    Thanks, Andy, for this great article and, Ann, for your great comment. It really is time that this treatment of these innocent men stops. The behaviour of this government is the behaviour of dictators – people who want their own way, insist on having it and refuse to listen to reason. It’s as if they are carrying out a personal vendetta and they seem to encourage the gutter press to vilify people who have not had the chance to fight for justice.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Eleanor. And thanks also for posting it on Care2, whose members are very engaged in human rights issues:

  5. Nikolas Karman says...

    Thanks for this Eleanor, another example of fear creation by using the word terrorism and to use this fear to remove more of our rights and to justify the illegal activities of governments kowtowing to the American NWO.
    The so called terrorist organisations are a figment of imagination and creation by loose elements in government who are the real terrorist.
    People need to understand what is really happening and we need more people like you to expose this.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    A friend of U’s wrote to say:

    Hi Andy,
    Thanks so much for this impressive article. Ref: the kidnapping, I have been rereading The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925) page 176 Penguin Ed: “I have been speaking on the assumption that a long time elapses between the ostensible acquittal and the new arrest; that is possible and I have known of such cases, but it is just as possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the Court and find officers already waiting to arrest him again. Then of course all his freedom is at an end.” Just one of many uncanny similarities in the course of my experience of the Home Office.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And my reply:

    Great to hear from you, and thanks for your courage in being on the frontline of Kafka’s Britain. It’s disturbing to realize that the overused adjective “Kafkaesque” is actually so appropriate for what ‘s happening here and now.
    As you may know, I’ve spent three years writing almost incessantly about the iniquities of Guantánamo, but am now determined to find more time to write about the situation in the UK, which is, of course, barely reported, and far less openly challenged than Bush’s legacy.

  8. foursgiant says...

    secret britain.
    The electoral registers for Sunderland contains incorrect voter registration numbers printed in the columns alongside voters names.
    Sometimes the Registers are printed with the same error numbers year after year, one particular period from 1958 to 1961 shows that these numbers cannot be common human error as during this period the housing
    estate was covered by two separate electoral wards and both of these wards show the same and also similar errors for this one particular
    housing estate. Some people have even received a wrong electoral number more than once in their voting lifetime and nearly all of the electoral registers that I have looked at dating from about 1950 to 1972 contain errors, errors placed in such a way that they can only have been put there for a reason or purpose beyond their normal intended use. I suspect
    that the error numbers continue into the early 1990’s. These electoral registers can be found in the records section of the public library
    fawcett street Sunderland Tyne and Wear. except the register for 1973 which for some unknown reason was not printed or it is kept hidden from the public, this must have been planned as early as 1970 or 1971 hence
    the change in the way the registers are dated, ie. the electoral registers are dated yearly as follows 1969, 1970 etc. then change to being dated 1971-72 and then 1972-73 then 1974 then 1975 missing out an electoral register for one year. Dates in other parts of the registers such as in force dates and the qualifying dates indicates that the missing register is for 1973. Anyway whatever the excuse is for being a register short it must have been known about a long time in advance that one register was
    not going to be made available to the public.

  9. Britain’s Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction? by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March […]

  10. Calling Time On The Use Of Secret Evidence In The UK by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] I explained in an article in March, “Britain’s insane secret terror evidence,” these suspicions appeared to be confirmed when, in the portion of U’s bail-stripping hearing […]

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