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Commentary Last Updated: Feb 26th, 2009 - 15:38:24

UK must come clean on torture accusations
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Feb 26, 2009, 14:33

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During the murky eight years of George W. Bush�s White House tenure, there is little doubt that the hands of some British officials became grubby trying to please their US ally.

It has only been a month since ex-President Bush flew off to relative obscurity in Texas but it feels like an age ago. So much has changed climate-wise.

The new administration is making nice with Muslims around the world, has pledged to proactively seek a two-state solution and is rushing to get out of Iraq.

Moreover, President Barack Obama has promised to close Bush�s Guantanamo and has already taken steps to outlaw the practice of torture. His attitudes are as day to Bush�s long dark night. The problem is Bush�s exit leaves Britain holding the baby.

These are all moves which must have provoked a sigh of relief among Whitehall�s mandarins. After all, the former Blair government was arguably arm-twisted into Iraq and was never comfortable with kidnapping individuals on flimsy pretexts before locking them up while awaiting the verdicts of kangaroo military tribunals.

That was the official stance. But now there is evidence that the British secret service may have been complicit in the torturing of �detainees� (a nice innocuous word that deprived incarcerated suspects of their rights under the Geneva Conventions).

And it must be said that if the UK was seriously offended by their treatment, the government would not have waited years before seeking the repatriation of its own citizens and residents.

Now that torture has once again rightfully reverted to being a dirty word within so-called free and democratic societies, Britain�s Foreign Office is trying its best to wipe the stains from its carpet or, to be more precise, is endeavouring to hide them under a rug.

For years, former British detainees eventually allowed to return home have spoken of undergoing harsh interrogations at Camp Delta carried out by American and British interrogators.

Ruhal Ahmad -- one of the �Tipton Three� featured in the 2006 docudrama, The Road to Guantanamo -- told newspapers that he was interrogated in Afghanistan by an M15 officer and a representative of the Foreign Office.

�All the time I was kneeling with a guy standing on the backs of my legs and another holding a gun to my head,� he recounted. However, such firsthand accounts were not taken seriously until recently.

The case that has recently hurtled the UK�s possible involvement in torture into the spotlight is that of an Ethiopian with British residency, who returned to Britain Monday after being confined to Guantanamo for seven years, where, according to a medical report, he suffered malnutrition, stomach complaints, sores, organ and ligament damage, as well as physical and emotional bruising.

His British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, claims �he has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper. What Binyam [Mohammad] has been through should have been left behind in the Middle Ages.�

But when Mohammad�s plight was taken to a British court, the judges were hamstrung by Foreign Secretary David Miliband who suppressed evidence under the banner of national security.

He claimed that the US administration had warned it would cease sharing intelligence in the event such evidence became public knowledge.

The clearly irritated judges urged the Obama administration to reconsider its position and expressed astonishment �that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials and relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.�

In reality, the court had been misled. It transpired that the Foreign Office had actually requested the US to issue a letter in those terms to umbrella its own reluctance to disclose British involvement in the torture. This revelation has triggered accusations of cover-up.

Obviously, the right hand does not know what the left hand is up to, as British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has asked Attorney-General Baroness Scotland to investigate �criminal wrongdoing� by UK and US security services related to Mohammad�s allegations.

Now the civil liberties group Human Rights Watch (HRW) is heaping more pressure onto Miliband by alleging that British intelligence officials have interrogated British citizens subsequent to their abuse or torture. HRW has issued a report suggesting at least 10 British detainees have been tortured with the knowledge or collusion of MI5.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office has responded with �our policy is not to participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment, for any purpose.� Great! Then prove it!

There is a chance that Mohammad may pursue his case. In that event, Britain should come clean.

If mistakes were made, so be it. There are too many people in the know for them to be swept under a cosy rug.

Mohammad and others like him deserve recompense and an apology. And poised, as we are, on a promised new era of morality and the rule of law, we deserve the truth.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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