The Washington Post broke the news on Friday that Binyam Mohamed, British resident, Guantánamo prisoner, victim of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and the subject of high-profile court cases on both sides of the Atlantic, will be returning to the UK “early next week,” according to “a source involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.”
Binyam has heard these rumors before -- since December, in fact, when he told his lawyers, “It has come to my attention through several reliable sources that my release from Guantánamo to the UK had been ordered several weeks ago”-- but there now seems little reason to doubt that the rumors are true. Although the story of Binyam’s rendition and torture (for 18 months in Morocco, from July 2002 to January 2004, and then at the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan) has been in the public domain for three and a half years -- and it has long been established that the plot to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in New York, in which he was allegedly involved, was not a plot at all, and that he had only confessed to having a role in it because of the torture to which he was subjected -- the Bush administration only reluctantly abandoned its claims last October, when a US judge demanded to see the evidence.
In the UK, Binyam’s case has been even more significant. Last August, two High Court judges condemned Britain’s intelligence services for their role in his rendition and torture. The judges were disturbed to discover that MI5 had sent agents to interrogate him in May 2002, five weeks after he was seized at Karachi airport, because it should have been clear that he was being held illegally in Pakistan, and they also criticized the intelligence services for providing and receiving intelligence about him from July 2002 until February 2003, when they knew that he was being held incommunicado, and should not have been involved without receiving cast-iron assurances about his welfare. The relationship of the United Kingdom to the United States, the judges stated, “went far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing.”
The US State Department v. David Miliband
The judges also indicated that they thought that information contained in 42 documents in the possession of the British government, which related to Binyam’s rendition and torture, should be made available to the public. However, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, responded by invoking issues of national security to prevent disclosure of the documents, and also produced a letter from the US State Department’s senior legal adviser, John Bellinger, which indicated that disclosure would damage the relationship between the British and American intelligence agencies. "We want to affirm in the clearest terms,” the letter stated, “that the public disclosure of these documents or of the information contained therein is likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence-sharing arrangements.”
Despite the foreign secretary’s most fervent wishes, however, questions about Binyam’s treatment -- and about British complicity in his rendition and torture -- have not gone away. Just last weekend, the focus on the British government’s role sharpened considerably when, after David Miliband denied that the US had made a specific threat, and attempted to explain that the issue was only one of the “fundamental principle” of confidentiality between one country and another, a “former senior State Department official” told the Observer that the letter that mentioned possible “harm” to the intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK had been solicited directly by the Foreign Office.
"Far from being a threat,” the former official stated, “it was solicited [by the Foreign Office]. The Foreign Office asked for it in writing. They said: ‘Give us something in writing so that we can put it on the record.’ If you give us a letter explaining you are opposed to this, then we can provide that to the court.”
As the Observer reported, the Foreign Office immediately tried to play down the significance of its role, confirming that it had requested the letter from the State Department, but claiming that it was merely “sensible and proper” to require a US statement as part of the legal proceedings. Others were not convinced, however, and Tory MP David Davis accused the foreign secretary of acting to “prevent his own government's embarrassment.”
Pakistani torture as “part of a deliberate British policy”
If Sunday’s news was troubling enough for the government, its credibility declined still further during the week, after the Guardian examined testimony made last summer, during Binyam’s judicial review, by an MI5 agent identified only as Witness B, who was responsible for questioning Binyam in Pakistan, prior to his rendition to Morocco. As the Guardian explained, the testimony of Witness B indicated that the circumstances of Binyam’s interrogation in Pakistan were part of a deliberate British policy, devised by legal advisers to the security services and the government.
The statements came towards the end of the following exchange, in which Witness B was questioned by Dinah Rose QC, who began by reading out the following extract from the agent’s notes of his interview with Binyam in May 2002: “I told Mohamed he had an opportunity to help us and help himself. The US authorities will be deciding what to do with him and this will depend to a very large degree on his degree of cooperation.”
Q. Why did you say to him that the US authorities would be deciding what to do with him?
A. Because I expected the Pakistani authorities to transfer him to the US authorities.
Q. Why did you expect that to happen?
A. Because that had happened in previous cases of which I was aware and also at some point I may have been told that that was the intention of the US authorities.
Q. Did you speak to any Americans before you interviewed Mr. Mohamed?
A. I am not sure whether I can give a full answer to that in open session.
Q. I am content to leave that for Mr. De La Mare to pursue [the Special Advocate appointed to represent Binyam in closed sessions, in which secret evidence was discussed]. Was it your understanding that it was lawful for Mr. Mohamed to be transferred to the US authorities in this way?
A. I consider that to be a matter for the Security Service top management and for Government.
Q. Had anyone ever told you that it was or was not lawful?
A. I do not recall being told that at all, no.
Q. Did it concern you at all?
A. I was always, whenever conducting an interview, careful to make sure that I had the clearance of my management to proceed and I did so in this case. I was aware that the general question of interviewing detainees had been discussed at length by Security Service management legal advisers and Government and I acted in this case, as in others, under the strong impression that it was considered to be proper and lawful.
Opening a can of worms: other examples of torture
The Guardian also suggested that what it described as “an official interrogation policy” had led to the torture and abuse of other British prisoners, a can of worms that the British government has also been trying desperately to conceal. Last July, for example, the Guardian’s Ian Cobain first reported allegations that the British intelligence services had “outsourced” the torture of British citizens to Pakistan’s security services. Cobain’s article mentioned three particular cases:
A medical student, who did not wish to be identified, explained that he “was abducted at gunpoint in August 2005 and held for two months at the offices of Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau opposite the British Deputy High Commission in Karachi,” where he was “whipped, beaten, deprived of sleep, threatened with execution and witnessed other inmates being tortured.” He added that he was questioned about the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, and that “after being tortured by Pakistani agents he was questioned by British intelligence officers.” He is now working in a hospital in southern England, having qualified in 2007, but remains traumatized by what happened to him.
Tariq Mahmood, 35, a taxi driver from Sparkhill, Birmingham, was abducted in Rawalpindi in October 2003 and released without charge about five months later. His family explained that “he was tortured, and that MI5 officers and American intelligence officers had a hand in his mistreatment.”
Tahir Shah, an author from London, was seized in 2005 and held for 16 days. Also interrogated about the July 2005 bombings, he has stated that he was interrogated in “a fully-equipped torture chamber,” containing “mangles, whips and electrical equipment,” where “he was hooded and shackled for long periods and deprived of sleep.” According to the Guardian, “He [did] not allege that British officials were involved, but believe[d] it is unlikely they would not have been informed.”
In December 2008, two other examples came to light. In “The Testimony of Zeeshan Siddiqui” (PDF), published by Cageprisoners, the former engineering student explained how he had been abducted in May 2005 and tortured horribly for ten days. He was then held for another seven months. Although he had no knowledge that the British intelligence services were involved in any way with his treatment in Pakistan, it is clear that the British government subsequently acted on the basis of information that was obtained from him through the use of torture. After returning to the UK, he was placed under a control order, tagged and, essentially, subjected to a form of house arrest. “Eventually,” as Cageprisoners explained, “he took off the control order tag and absconded from the order. Siddiqui is still missing today.”
Even more shocking is the story of Rangzieb Ahmed, from Rochdale, who was convicted in a British court and sentenced to a minimum of ten years in prison for being a member of al-Qaeda and running a three-man terrorist cell. As the Guardian reported, the jury was not allowed to hear that three of Ahmed’s fingernails were removed with pliers during a year-long ordeal in Pakistan, from August 2006 to August 2007, at the hands of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), Pakistan’s largest intelligence agency, nor that he was “beaten with sticks, whipped with electric cables, sexually humiliated and deprived of sleep.” The jury was also not informed that the British High Commission had not been told that he was being held until just before his release to the UK (where he was subsequently re-arrested), that“MI5 and Greater Manchester police passed questions to the ISI to be put to Ahmed during his interrogation,” and that MI5 officers also questioned him while he was in ISI custody.
Before the trial began, Ahmed’s barrister, Michael Topolski QC, tried unsuccessfully to have it halted, arguing, with some justification, that, “because of his treatment in Pakistan, it would be an abuse of the court's process for his trial to go ahead.” Topolski pointed out that British agents, the security services and the police “condoned or connived in his torture by providing his torturers with questions,” and that proceeding with the trial “would put Britain under a clear breach of its obligations, under international law, to suppress and discourage torture.” For a detailed account of Ahmed’s experiences, and his explanation of how he was in Pakistan to assist in relief work, see “The Testimony of Rangzieb Ahmed” (PDF), published by Cageprisoners just after his conviction.
The full extent of the murky connections between MI5 and the Pakistani intelligence agencies has yet to be revealed, of course, but it is clearly an issue that needs a thorough investigation, especially as the Guardian stated last week that it had “learned from other sources that the interrogation policy was directed at a high level within Whitehall and that it has been further developed since [Binyam] Mohamed’s detention in Pakistan.” Fortunately, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Andrew Dismore MP, is pursuing the matter, and, two weeks ago, stated that the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, would be called to give evidence. Dismore explained that he had come to believe“that the security services may be operating under a James Bond-style get-out clause.”
Some pragmatic reasons for Binyam’s return
As a result of all this activity, it is no surprise that Binyam Mohamed may be back in the UK by Monday. However, while the British government is to be congratulated for pushing for his release for the last 18 months -- since first requesting his return to the UK in August 2007 -- I hope I don’t sound overly cynical when I add that securing his return will also have the knock-on effect of reducing public discussion of his case to the bare minimum. Like the British residents returned in March and December 2007, Binyam will have no rights on his return, and, until the British government sorts out his residency status, will be unwilling to talk about his experiences, even if he should wish to do so. More significantly, perhaps, his supporters will also be obliged to remain quiet on his behalf.
This is not to say that the government is attempting to shirk all of its responsibilities for what happened to Binyam. As was made clear in October, when Jacqui Smith asked the attorney general, Baroness Scotland, to look into “possible criminal wrongdoing” on the part of MI5 and the CIA, the government has certainly opened up high-level channels to investigate Binyam’s case, and his supporters were, no doubt, pleased to hear on Wednesday that Baroness Scotland has now sought the advice of Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions.
As the Guardian reported, Baroness Scotland wrote a letter to Andrew Dismore, in which she explained that she had seen evidence that MI5 had given in secret to the High Court, and stated, “I am, with the advice of the DPP, considering the material in order to determine whether there is a basis for inviting the police to conduct a criminal investigation in relation to one or more individuals.”
Even so, it remains to be seen whether a full-blown investigation into Binyam’s case will be pursued, and, if so, what sort of timescale is envisaged. As the High Court judges pointed out two weeks ago, another avenue to the truth remains open, as the Intelligence Services Committee (ISC), an independent investigative committee that has already looked into Binyam’s case, in 2005 and 2007, has been given copies of the 42 documents whose disclosure the government has fought so hard to suppress, and will, in the judges’ words, be able to “ask searching and difficult questions” from witnesses in the intelligence services “on the very important issues raised.” However, I maintain, in spite of this, that Binyam’s imminent return to the UK is useful to the government on a number of different levels, not all of which involve the pursuit of justice.