Activists protest against Guantanamo Bay detention camp outside the White House in January 2018 (AFP)
The United Kingdom was involved in the torture and rendition of hundreds of terror suspects, a powerful parliamentary committee has found, accusing the UK government of turning a blind eye to its allies' mistreatment of detainees.
The British government has also failed over the past decade to develop a clear policy on rendition, despite intense scrutiny of the practice used after the 9/11 attacks, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) found.
In particular, the government did not ensure that UK allies are prevented from using British territory – the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, especially – for the practice without prior permission, the committee outlined in one of two damning reports released on Thursday.
According to the reports, there is no evidence of UK officers directly carrying out the mistreatment of detainees.
However, domestic and foreign intelligence services MI5 and MI6 were aware “at an early point” that the United States was mistreating detainees and the spy agencies were involved in hundreds of torture cases.
“We have found 13 incidents where UK personnel witnessed at first hand a detainee being mistreated by others, 25 where UK personnel were told by detainees that they had been mistreated by others and 128 incidents recorded where agency officers were told by foreign liaison services about instances of mistreatment. In some cases, these were correctly investigated but this was not consistent,” the MPs said in one of their reports.
The reports found that, despite suspected mistreatment, in 232 cases UK personnel supplied intelligence to foreign agencies despite suspecting or knowing about detainees' mistreatment.
Moreover, there were “198 cases where UK personnel received intelligence from liaison services which had been obtained from detainees who knew they had been mistreated – or with no indication as to how the detainee had been treated but where we consider they should have suspected mistreatment.”
The committee was tasked with investigating the UK security and intelligence agencies' handling of detainees overseas and also of the practice of rendition.
After the 9/11 attacks, rendition was used by the US government to abduct terror suspects.
'We are unconvinced that the government recognises the seriousness of rendition and the potential for the UK to be complicit in actions which may lead to torture'
– Intelligence and Security Committee
"We are unconvinced that the government recognises the seriousness of rendition and the potential for the UK to be complicit in actions which may lead to torture," the committee said in a statement.
While intelligence agency leaders were aware of the US's activity, the committee said there was no evidence presented during the inquiry that suggested that government ministers knew what was going on.
“We havent … any indications that ministers were told and then ignored the advice,” committee member Keith Simpson MP said at a press conference on Thursday.
The committee has asked the government to publish its policy on rendition by September.
On Thursday, just ahead of the release, the Times newspaper revealed that Prime Minister Theresa May had been advised to hold a public consultation on torture procedures which would have allowed for human rights organisations and other groups to weigh in.
Instead, according to a leaked government document seen by the Times, May chose to order a "light-touch" inquiry and will reject the committees recommendation to consult civil society.
“Public consultation would be widely welcomed by the ISC and civil liberties groups, but would further delay publication and is likely to generate recommendations that we would not be able to implement without damaging national security,” the document says.
Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, the UKs shadow attorney-general who also received the leaked document, told BBC Radio 4s Today programme on Thursday morning that the inquiry process had been “insufficient”.
'It is high time that there is full blown judge-led inquiry that victims can participate in, that the public can participate in'
– Shami Chakrabarti, UK shadow attorney-general
“We all know now that over a number of years our agencies, with the best of intentions no doubt, sometimes lost their way in the years following 9/11,” she said. “It is high time that there is full blown judge-led inquiry that victims can participate in, that the public can participate in.
“Clearly, some things will always be secret, but I think we need to go back to an approach that favours the rule of law over deals between governments, whether they are our government or the White House,” Chakrabarti said.
Tip of the iceberg
Dan Dolan, head of policy at human rights group Reprieve, told Middle East Eye ahead of the reports release that given the limits of the committees remit and powers, the findings can only expose “the tip of the iceberg”.
“Well be interested in what comes out in the report, but we are also very interested in what happens next,” Dolan said.
Thursday's findings come eight years after David Cameron established what he said would be a "short and sharp" inquiry into the rendition and torture of terror suspects, led by Sir Peter Gibson, a retired appeal court judge.
However, Gibson's work was halted in 2012 after files unearthed in a Libyan government official's office revealed cooperation between the US, UK and Libyan intelligence agencies in transfering terrorism suspects, and Scotland Yard opened a criminal investigation into the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar.
The couple were seized and detained in 2004 in a secret operation carried out by the CIA based on information provided by the British foreign intelligence agency, MI6, and flown to the Libyan capital Tripoli, where they were subsequently tortured.
Last month, as the result of a court settlement, the British government apologised for its role in what it called the “appalling treatment” of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar.
The ISC, however, did not consider the case during their inquiry: after Gibson's investigation was halted, the government said it wanted a independent, judge-led inquiry once criminal proceedings closed. In the interim, the inquiry was handed over to the ISC.
"One of the glaring holes in this inquiry is that it hasn't considered one of the most high-profile and critical cases we know about of UK involvement in rendition and torture, which is Belhaj," Dolan said.
Dominic Grieve, ISC chairman, said on Thursday that the completely inquiry alone had taken up 50 percent of the committee's time over the past year. "We are not about to investigate Belhaj," he told journalists.
Cori Crider, one of Belhaj's lawyers, told MEE that report "makes clear there are literally dozens of unanswered questions about UK involvement in torture after 9/11".
"But the ISC chair, Dominic Grieve, also forthrightly admits the agencies' refusal to put up witnesses hamstrung the report. If the British public are ever to get the trusth about rendition and torture, there's going ot have to be a judge-led inquiry with the power to compel witnesses. Nothing less will do."
However, their case was not part of the committee's inquiry.