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Torture and the Intelligence Security Committee

In June this year Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee confirmed that, while cooperating with the US post-2001, UK intelligence operatives took part in and tolerated actions that were “inexcusable”. This is about UK complicity in rendition and torture. The reports offer little reassurance that this will never happen again for those who think suspending people for hours on end is more than a mild inconvenience, or that being delivered in shackles to your worst enemy might not be in the best tradition of human rights.

The question MI6 appear to struggle with was, is it still torture if you get someone else to do it for you? It’s clear that, prior to 2010, they thought not. It’s not clear that, since 2010, they have really changed their minds. Whilst the ISC reports did not conclude that UK officials had tortured anyone themselves, they found two cases where they were “party to mistreatment administered by others,” 13 where they witnessed it and 232 where we gave questions to other intelligence services when we knew or suspected ill-treatment. Only those who believe everything they see on Fox TV could honestly think the end justifies the means because your suspect has a beard and a Q’uran.

The ISC wanted to know how many times (since this all blew up in 2010 and everyone promised to do better) a serious risk of mistreatment HAD been suspected and escalated. They were concerned to find that nobody was keeping a record, and that whilst guidance was being adhered to, it’s pretty woolly and does not merit the name, nor is anyone assessing whether it has actually been effective. There is no agreement as to who is responsible for preventing UK complicity in unlawful rendition, and no process to ensure that allies do not use UK territory for rendition.

The UK is obliged not to participate in torture in any circumstances, and to abandon any suggestion that if we, Joe Public, truly understood what we faced we’d appreciate that abusing people’s human rights in our name was all for our own good. Last month the European Court of Human Rights, in recognition of the set of human rights objectives we co-wrote and ratified long ago, found that Lithuania and Romania violated the rights of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri by allowing their detention at CIA black sites on European soil. In May the UK government apologised to anti- Gaddafi activist Abdul Hakim Belhaj for rendering him to similar sites in Thailand in 2004, where he was first tortured then flown on with UK government assistance, blindfolded and shackled, to Libya, there to face the wrath of Gaddafi himself. Not only was he tortured there, but MI6 visited the jail with questions to be put to him, and asked for his answers. They knew how those were being obtained. When Belhaj sued the UK, the government’s initial defence was that UK officials acting overseas were subject to the laws of those lands, not ours. Anyone who thought our intelligence services weren’t allowed to participate in torture was and still is, it appears, wrong.

Our government apologised to Belhaj, but it’s less clear from all this that they have promised never to do it again. Emily Thornberry and Shami Chakrabati wrote to Boris for clarity. We expect he was too busy resigning to manage a suitable reply.

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