Monday, March 08, 2010

Government attempts to keep torture case secret.

The lengths that the British government are prepared to go to to silence any suggestion that they participated in (or turned a blind eye to) torture appears to know no bounds.

Today, a case involving seven men, including Binyam Mohamed, who claim that the British government were involved in their "extraordinary rendition" and subsequent torture comes to court.

The government are hoping that the case will be held in secret.

Lawyers for the men say that if successful, the government's application would extend closed proceedings into findings of fact in the civil courts for the first time.

"This would set a very serious precedent," said Louise Christian, a partner at Christian Khan who represents Martin Mubanga, one of the claimants, who was also detained at Guantánamo Bay. "If you allow evidence in ordinary civil cases to be kept secret, there is no doubt it will be endlessly used by the government. As the Binyam Mohamed case illustrated, this is really about the government avoiding embarrassment for the reality of their collaboration with the US and all that happened, rather than any real national security issues."

I'd love to know the reasoning as to why this case has to be held in secret. Most of the allegations of what was done to these men is already in the public domain, so what, apart from the government's own blushes, are we trying to prevent here?

I find it very hard to believe that there is any serious national security issue at stake here, just as we found recently when the court of appeal overturned the governments insistence in the case of Binyam Mohamed that everything must be kept secret so as not to offend our American allies.

But today lawyers for the men bringing the civil claim will argue that the attempt to hold an entire damages case in secret goes far beyond any previous rulings. The government applied to have the case heard behind closed doors last July, when lawyers for government bodies including MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service, the Foreign Office and the attorney-general, argued that more than 250,000 documents would have to be provided, more than half of which were marked "secret", and disclosure would take up to 10 years.

If successful, the application could open the way for a range of civil claims to be held in private using a system of "special advocates" – specially vetted lawyers appointed by the court – who would not be able to discuss the case with clients.

"This would have serious implications for other actions against the state, such as civil actions against the police or immigration services where they are accused of breaches of human rights or unlawful detention, actions against police usually about assault and imprisonment," said Christian. Experts are describing the attempt as a challenge to open justice – a central principle of English law strengthened by the European convention on human rights, and to the adversarial nature of English trials, which dates back to at least the 13th century.

English law is established by precedent. It's hard to imagine how that could continue unharmed if there were suddenly a series of cases conducted in secret.

The government are insisting that the sensitivity of the papers involved are why this matter should be kept from public gaze; but, so soon after they claimed the sky was falling during the Binyam Mohamed case, one has to treat their claims with a heavy dose of cynicism.

It would be sort of understandable if the government were seeking merely to have the public gallery cleared whilst certain bits of evidence - which it regarded as especially sensitive - was revealed to the court, but to ask that the entire trial be held in secret really does seem excessive.

And when the claims which are central to the case - that the government knew these men were being tortured - are likely to cause the government embarrassment, one has to question the motives behind such a request.

Click here for full article.

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