CEO Keith Best: Libya secret documents highlight need for rethink on UK 'Detainee Inquiry'
UK involvement in torture overseas was brought to light yet again recently with the unearthing of top secret documents by Human Rights Watch in Libya. If verified, they show the head of counter-terrorism at MI6 engaged in fawning dialogue with Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief, Musa Kusa, about how ‘glad’ Britain was to help deliver into his hands the Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhadj. Now head of the Tripoli Military Council – and therefore an ally of the UK – Belhadj claimed that following the intervention of MI6 he suffered years of torture whilst being imprisoned in Tripoli, including being hung by his wrists and beaten during interrogations.
Following years of working directly with torture survivors from Libya, Freedom from Torture knows only too well the horror awaiting individuals who found themselves in Gaddafi’s interrogation cells.
A further alleged victim - named in another secret CIA document as Abu Munthir - was, it seems, unlawfully transferred to Libya from Hong Kong with the help of the UK. He says he was subsequently held in isolation in a cell measuring just 6ft by 7ft for over a year and was continually threatened with execution. Such accusations make a mockery of the repeated claims from the intelligence agencies that the UK has not been complicit in rendition operations mounted by the US.
Would these shocking documents have ever seen the light of day if they had not been uncovered by an NGO amid the chaos in Tripoli, and instead it had been left to the Government to decide whether to disclose the goings-on over recent years to the British public? We clearly have a right to know what has been done in our name.
The Prime Minister confidently announced that the latest accusations from Libya would be looked at ‘very carefully’ by Sir Peter Gibson in the upcoming ‘Detainee Inquiry’. Only last month, however, Freedom from Torture, along with nine other human rights organisations and the lawyers acting for a range of former detainees – whose claims the inquiry has been set up to investigate – made it clear that we could not support this flawed process which is seriously lacking in credibility and transparency. As it stands with the proposed format for this inquiry, it is the Government – and not the chair of the inquiry, or another independent body – that will make the final decision on what evidence is made public. Following years of government secrecy, resulting in a drip, drip of information which has surfaced pointing to serious abuses, how can we trust in the findings of an inquiry in which the Government reserves for itself the final say on disclosure – and where the survivors themselves are excluded from any meaningful form of participation?
We must remind ourselves what we are dealing with here; these are just the latest in a mounting catalogue of allegations that the UK government and security services - acting in the public’s name - repeatedly turned a blind eye as detainees were tortured, facilitated interrogation sessions including through the provision of questions, and even delivered people – with full knowledge of the potential fate that awaited them – into the hands of their torturers. For an organisation like Freedom from Torture, which hears on a daily basis the terrifying reality for those who have survived torture, this is a truly horrifying proposition.
Our clinicians work with survivors who have sought refuge in the UK after fleeing torture and other ill-treatment in states around the world, including from Libya. We hear the testimony of those who have suffered the most horrendous human rights abuses, while supporting them in their attempt to begin the long process of rebuilding their lives. Survivors tell us how important it is that those responsible for their torture are not allowed to act with impunity and are held accountable for their actions. With this in mind, the need for an effective investigation into just how far the UK has crossed the line cannot be overstated.
By coincidence, as the reports from Libya surfaced, a separate public inquiry investigating the torture and other ill-treatment suffered by Iraqi civilians at the hands of British soldiers - that left one man dead and others seriously injured and traumatised – was concluded. The chair of the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry, Sir William Gage, published his report on what the former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, refers to as a “stain on the character of the British Army” and the conduct of individuals as “plain criminality”.
This inquiry reminds us that at the heart of such investigations there are real people, with families and loved ones, who struggle to recover from the abuse inflicted on them. Attempting to come to terms with the death of his son, Mr Daoud Mousa had previously told the inquiry there were “features of the way my son was treated which I find particularly appalling and which I want to make sure are given proper public recognition”.
While this inquiry allowed Mr Mousa and his son’s fellow detainees the opportunity to hear from those implicated in their abuse, in contrast the detainees with whom Sir Peter Gibson should be concerned in the ‘Detainee Inquiry’ will be shut out while crucial testimony is taken from those involved in their torture. The lawyers acting on their behalf meanwhile will not be allowed to directly question witnesses and are excluded from debates about what evidence can be made public.
Nobody would argue that the national security interests of the country should be jeopardised as part of any inquiry, but this should not be used as a ready-made excuse for excessive secrecy. Now, more than ever, the Government must revisit the proposed Terms of Reference and protocol, taking into account these fresh allegations and ensuring that Sir Peter Gibson has sufficient powers and resources to mount a thorough and independent investigation. Surely the whole point is to give the ‘Detainee Inquiry’ the necessary tools to enable it to get to the truth? Otherwise we are left in the farcical position of facing an expensive process – paid for by the taxpayer – which is precluded from achieving the Prime Minister’s stated objective in removing the ‘stain’ from the moral authority of the UK’s intelligence services before it even begins."