Sunday, August 02, 2009

Britain's torture role must be investigated, say MPs.

MPs and peers on the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights are demanding that an inquiry needs to be launched into whether or not the British government colluded in torture.

It follows fresh allegations heard at the High Court last week, including claims that an MI5 officer known as Witness B made three visits to Morocco at the time that former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed claims he was tortured in the country.

The human rights committee is expected to issue a damning report on the Government's role, saying that only an independent probe will be able to establish whether Britain was complicit. Ministers have denied that Britain has played any role in torture, but have shifted their position on extraordinary rendition since the first revelations of the practice by the US emerged in 2005.

The British government have always insisted that they abhor torture and would never order such a barbaric practice, but they have always allowed themselves the wriggle room to use information gleaned in such a disgusting way:

Jack Straw has stated that, "It does not follow that if it [information] is extracted under torture, it is automatically untrue. But there is a much higher probability of it being embellished." So, Straw is telling us that, although evidence obtained by torture would automatically be inadmissible in a court of law, because of the chance that it is flawed, the same standards need not necessarily apply to how a government treats information gleaned in such a fashion.

Then Lord Brown went even further stating, "It [the government] has a prime responsibility to safeguard the security of the state and would be failing in its duty if it ignores whatever it may learn."

So, according to Lord Brown, the government actually has a duty to act on information, even if it suspects that this information was gained illegally.

It's impossible, listening to the statements of both Straw and Lord Brown, not to detect a certain moral ambivalence when it comes to the subject of torture. There is certainly the feeling that, whilst we wouldn't do it ourselves, we appear to feel duty bound - and that really is what Lord Brown is saying - to act on such information once it comes into our possession no matter how it is gained.

The question then becomes to what lengths will we be prepared to look the other way and pretend that we do not know the methods being used to get the information which we desire? And, at what point in that process could we be said to be colluding in torture? That's the high wire which the UK government are currently attempting to walk.

Phil Shiner, a Birmingham lawyer recently hired by CND and Peace Rights to represent them because of his sterling work in this area, is under no doubts about the UK's role in torture:
"At the heart of the British nation," he says, "is still that horrible, exploitative, violent, colonial past. We've never got rid of it. So we go into Iraq and think 'these Iraqis, they're savages... forget about Iraq being the cradle of civilisation' As a nation, we don't really care."

"We torture people, yet no one seems to know."
Shiner also implies that the publicity surrounding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay has acted as a smokescreen which has hidden the activities of nations like the UK engaging in much more covert torture practices than their American counterparts.

That's all about to change. The JCHR are about to issue their report and those who have read it say that it is "truly shocking" and the government will not be able to avoid a formal response to the allegations.

The lid is apparently about to come off the British government's complicity in torture. Until now, we have relied on the defence that, whilst we received the information, we did not request - specifically - that it be obtained in the way in which is was obtained.

But, that's no better a defence than the receiver of stolen goods telling us that he didn't absolutely know that they were stolen. If there's even a suspicion that they were acquired by theft then one is not supposed to buy as that is seen as encouraging the original crime.

If that's true of stolen goods, then it stands to reason that the same logic should apply - with much harsher punishments - to information gained through torture.

Both Jack Straw and Lord Brown's arguments make me suspect that we have, indeed, being looking the other way and pretending that we didn't know why this guy in a track-suit was offering us a brand new £500 camera for twenty quid. There was nothing at all suspicious about it. And who, fighting a war on terror, would turn their nose up at an equivalent bargain when it came to intelligence information?

I would argue that that is collusion and that that is a crime. If it's illegal to receive a stereo through such methods then it's illegal to receive intelligence through similar feigned ignorance.

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