With what the Guardian described
yesterday as the "almost unprecedented" release of "security service
reports of interviews with detainees in Guanta'namo Bay and other
overseas detention centers," the new British 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 Guanta'namo prisoners,
unleashing, instead, a torrent of previously classified and deeply
These reveal, shockingly, how the Labor government was happy for
British nationals and residents seized in Afghanistan and Pakistan to be
rendered to Guanta'namo 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 (FCO) to have
him returned to the UK, leading to his imprisonment in Guanta'namo for
two years and nine months.
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
Guanta'namo 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
Guanta'namo 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
According to Mubanga, after the British finished with him --
apparently having tried and failed to recruit him as a spy -- the U.S.
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 Guanta'namo 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 U.S. control would
be subjected to rendition and torture. "Despite that," he told the
court, "someone at Number 10 [Downing Street, the home and HQ of the
Prime Minister] saw fit to counter what the Foreign Office wished to
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 Guanta'namo." 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 U.S. custody in Afghanistan,
prior to their transfer to Guanta'namo. 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 Guanta'namo 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 Guanta'namo. 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 Guanta'namo, 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 U.S. 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
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."
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