Saturday, February 27, 2010

Government fury as judges attack security services.

The Guardian and other groups have succeeded at the Court of Appeal in having Lord Neuberger restore the critical paragraph of his judgement, which he cut under pressure from the UK government, in which he suggested that MI5 officers could not be trusted to tell the truth in the case of Binyam Mohamed.

Yesterday the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, agreed to restore the original judgment although he narrowed his criticism to Mr Mohamed's case. In the restored judgment the judge accused officers of having a "dubious record" over the "coercive interrogation" of the former Guantanamo Bay detainee. Lord Neuberger said some officers had been less than frank about what they knew about Mr Mohamed's ill-treatment.

The paragraph in question explains how MI5 had stressed to a parliamentary committee that it "operated in a culture that respected human rights and that coercive techniques were alien to the service's general ethics, methodology and training".

Lord Neuberger's final paragraph says: "Yet in this case that does not seem to have been true: as the evidence shows, some Security Services officials appear to have a dubious record relating to actual involvement, and frankness about any such involvement, with the mistreatment of Mr Mohamed when he was held at the behest of US officials."

The judge then added that while the good faith of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was not in doubt, a question mark now hung over some of the legal statements he had made, based on MI5 advice. The judge's published criticism yesterday led to calls for a public inquiry into the security service's role in torture.

This has produced an astonishing reaction from the government.
Within hours Gordon Brown, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and Alan Johnson, the home secretary, had issued statements backing MI5. In a direct challenge to the court, Johnson said he totally rejected its verdict.
I find it wholly disturbing that leading ministers, and especially the Prime Minister, would seek to criticise a court so publicly. They surely know that our system is built upon a separation of powers which they are now actively seeking to undermine.

Stung by the criticisms, the prime minister said: "We do not torture, and we do not ask others to do so on our behalf. We are clear that officials must not be complicit in mistreatment of detainees."

Johnson, who is responsible for MI5, said: "We totally reject any suggestion that the security services have a systemic problem in respecting human rights. We wholly reject too that they have any interest in suppressing or withholding information from ministers or the courts."

Miliband told Channel 4 News that he disagreed with the verdict: "I do not believe it is right to say that there's an interest or culture within the security services of the suppression of information."

It is now becoming impossible for Labour to avoid some kind of inquiry into the allegation that the British security services, at the very least, turned a blind eye to the torture of Binyam Mohamed. We now have the government in open battle with the courts, with many of us thinking that our courts are hardly radical hothouses, and if they are insisting that MI5 knew about the torture of Binyam Mohamed, then there's a very good chance that they are right. Courts don't go into open battle with a sitting government for no good cause.

Indeed, the very fact that Neuberger cut his original paragraph - under pressure from the government -only highlights the lengths to which they go to avoid rocking the boat.

The judges' verdict sparked widespread calls for a public or judicial inquiry into the handling of Mohamed's case.

"He cares the truth comes out so nobody would go through what he has gone through," said Cori Crider, legal director at Reprieve. "But questions linger. What policies allowed such complicity in torture? How many cases like Binyam's were there? Only a full public inquiry will answer the public's concerns about what has been done in our name."

These questions are not going to go away. Did the UK turn a blind eye - or worse, were we even more complicit - as Binyam Mohamed was tortured?

Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson and David Miliband can all act as if they are outraged that we can even ask such things, but the evidence now demands an inquiry into this.

The case of Binyam Mohamed is extraordinary in every sense of the word. Yesterday, despite huge pressure from the government, the court made clear - although it should be pointed out that it limited it's criticism to Mohamed's case alone - that some security officials "appear to have dubious records when it comes to human rights and coercive techniques".

That's a remarkable thing for a court to say. Indeed, the government's lawyer, Jonathan Sumption QC, thought it so damaging that he sought to have this paragraph removed from the published judgement and the court, under pressure, agreed.

Sumption argued that this was "exceptionally damaging criticism" and, now that it is public, it is hard to disagree with his assessment.

The question is what do we do now?

I find it impossible to believe that this can simply be swept under the carpet as a disagreement between the government and the courts. Someone is right here and someone is wrong. And the question at stake is whether or not the UK facilitated torture.

It demands an answer. And only an inquiry can provide that.

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