[Ppnews] Britain's Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction?

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 3 11:32:01 EDT 2009


April 3-5, 2009

Tony Blair and the Dark Side

Britain's Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction?


On Monday March 30, in a committee room in the 
House of Commons, Diane Abbott MP chaired a 
meeting entitled, “Britain’s Guantánamo? The use 
of secret evidence and evidence based on torture 
in the UK courts,” to discuss the stories of some 
of the men held as “terror suspects” on the basis 
of secret evidence, and to work out how to 
persuade the government to change its policies. A 
detailed report of the meeting is available 
and the profiles of five prisoners are available 
by following 
link), but I thought it was also worth addressing 
a question posed by the meeting’s title, and to 
ask if it is fair to compare the bitter fruits of 
Britain’s anti-terror legislation with the iconic 
symbol of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.”

In some ways, of course, it is not. The British 
government, while clearly complicit, to some 
extent, in the 
and torture of prisoners by or on behalf of the 
Bush administration, and in interrogating them 
while they were held in illegal and unjustifiable 
conditions, has not been directly involved in 
their industrial-scale rendition, in the 
establishment of a vast offshore prison devoted 
to coercive intelligence-gathering, or in 
direct implementation of torture, under the cover 
legal advice which included blatant attempts to redefine its very meaning.

That said, there are, in fact, many unnerving 
similarities between the Bush administration’s 
policies, which prompted universal condemnation 
on an unprecedented scale, and those implemented 
in the UK, which have caused barely a ripple of protest.

The similarities between Guantánamo and the UK terror laws

At Guantánamo, since January 2002, the US 
government has, at various times, held 779 men, 
mostly without charge or trial, who were picked 
up in 20 different countries but detained neither 
as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva 
Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, to be 
tried in a recognized court. When, after three 
and a half years, the Supreme Court ruled that 
they had habeas corpus rights, the government 
responded not by allowing them access to the US 
courts, but by holding military tribunals, 
designed to justify their detention through the 
use of secret evidence that the prisoners -- 
known as “detainees” -- were not allowed to see.

In the UK, since December 2001, the British 
government has, at various times, held around 70 
men without charge or trial, refusing to try them 
as criminal suspects in recognized courts. The 
policy began with the imprisonment of 17 men in 
Belmarsh high-security prison, but when, after 
three years, the Law Lords ruled that their 
imprisonment was in contravention of the 
Rights Act, the government responded by 
introducing control orders and deportation bail, 
both of which involve draconian restrictions that 
amount to house arrest. Throughout this whole 
period, the government has justified the men’s 
detention through the use of secret evidence that 
the prisoners -- known as “detainees” -- are not allowed to see.

Another similarity concerns attempts by both the 
British and American governments to bypass their 
obligations under the 
Convention Against Torture -- which prevents the 
return of foreign nationals to countries where 
they face the risk of torture -- by reaching 
diplomatic agreements with various dictatorships 
in North Africa and the Middle East. These 
purport to guarantee that repatriated prisoners 
will be treated humanely, but in reality they have proved worthless.

Deportation to Tunisia

In June 2007, for example, after the US 
government signed a “diplomatic assurance” with 
the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, so 
that prisoners cleared for release from 
Guantánamo could be repatriated, two prisoners 
who were returned -- 
Lagha and 
bin Omar -- reported that they were 
and mistreated in Tunisian custody. They were 
then subjected to show trials, apparently based 
on evidence obtained through the torture of other 
prisoners, and received prison sentences of 

In the UK, the British government has been 
involved in a similar policy, signing “memoranda 
of understanding” (MoUs) in 2005 with Jordan, 
Libya and Lebanon, and attempting, without 
success, to do the same with Algeria, in order to 
deport “detainees” held on the basis of secret 
evidence, instead of putting them forward for 
trial in the UK. This is apparently because of 
the British government’s refusal to join the rest 
of the world in finding ways to use information 
obtained by the intelligence services in court, 
while preserving the confidentiality of sources 
and methods 
but it is difficult not to conclude that, in 
fact, the government has been swept up in its own 
rhetoric, and has actually lost sight of the 
correct balance between liberty and security.

There are further disturbing parallels. After the 
demonstrable failure of the Americans’ 
“diplomatic assurance” with Tunisia, a District 
Court judge intervened to prevent the return of a 
third Tunisian -- 
bin Ali -- in November 2007, arguing that he 
could suffer “irreparable harm” that the US 
courts would be powerless to reverse. Since then, 
no other Tunisians have been repatriated from 
Guantánamo, and, although the British government 
subsequently persisted in attempts to deport 
Tunisians from Europe, intervening in an Italian 
v. Italy, which was being considered by the 
European Court of Human Rights at the same time, 
the British attempts were struck down by the 
Court, which ruled, in March 2008, that attempts 
to return Nassim Saadi to Tunisia would be a 
clear breach of Article 3 of the 
Convention on Human Rights (which states that “No 
one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman 
or degrading treatment or punishment”).

Deportation to Libya

Both the US and the UK have faced struggles with 
repatriating foreign nationals to Libya, not 
because of any difficulties either government has 
with its enemy-turned-ally, the dictator Moammar 
Gaddafi, but because courts on both sides of the 
Atlantic have intervened to prevent Libyans from 
being repatriated: a Libyan in Guantánamo, 
Rauf al-Qassim, has been resisting his enforced 
return since June 2007, and in the UK, attempts 
to return 12 Libyans accused of having 
connections with terrorism were scuppered when, 
in April 2008, as the 
described it, the Court of Appeal “gave a damning 
verdict on promises” that two men -- identified 
only as AS and DD -- “would not be tortured in 
their home country.” The judges ruled that the 
government “failed to give enough weight to the risk of torture.”

What is particularly galling in the Libyans’ case 
is that nowhere along the line has a single voice 
in authority been heard pointing out that those 
who once opposed Colonel Gaddafi’s regime -- and 
are now wanted in his dungeons -- would, not so 
long ago, have been regarded as our friends, but 
that observation, of course, succinctly 
demonstrates an uncomfortable truth: that 
yesterday’s freedom fighters can all too easily 
become today’s terrorists when the winds of politics change.

Deportation to Algeria

Where both the British and American governments 
seem to be in accord -- and seem also to be 
meeting with some success in their mission to 
discard the UN Convention Against Torture and the 
European Convention on Human Rights -- is with 
Algeria. Although some Algerians in Guantánamo -- 
most notably 
Belbacha, who had lived peacefully in the UK for 
two years before he took an ill-timed holiday in 
Pakistan -- are still 
to prevent their enforced repatriation from 
Guantánamo, others are on record as having 
returned willingly, even though the fate that 
awaited them -- whether freedom, or a bent trial 
followed by further imprisonment -- seems to be 
akin to a round of Russian Roulette.

Given the choice of two evils, eight Algerians 
settled for Algeria over Guantánamo between July 
2008 and January 2009, and the same thing has 
happened with a number of “terror suspects” in 
the UK, who, exhausted by the imprisonment and 
house arrest foisted on them by the British 
government, on the basis of unknowable and 
unchallengeable secret evidence, opted to return 
“voluntarily “ to Algeria, with mixed results, as 
amnesty International has reported 
Some were released without charge, while others 
received prison sentences after dubious trials, 
and in all cases it has been next to impossible 
for human rights observers to monitor what has 
been happening with the kind of diligence that is necessary.

The British government -- or the Law Lords, at 
least -- know how shaky is the assumption that 
Algerians returned from the UK will be treated 
humanely and given fair trials, for two 
particular reasons: firstly, because the Algerian 
government has refused even to sign a worthless 
“memorandum of understanding” and has also 
refused to allow any British representatives to 
monitor what happens to those who are returned, 
and secondly, because, when the Lords approved 
the deportation in February of two prisoners -- 
BB and U -- they resorted, as I explained in 
article at the time, to claiming that President 
Bouteflika has improved Algeria’s human rights 
record, and has “acknowledged and approved a 
letter from the Prime Minster which included the 
statement that ‘this exchange of letters 
underscores the absolute commitment of our two 
governments to human rights and fundamental freedoms.’”

In quiet desperation, the Lords also quoted the 
judges of SIAC (Britain’s secret terror court), 
who had noted that “Very considerable efforts 
have been made at the highest political levels on 
both sides to strengthen these ties,” and 
concluded that, as a result, “it is barely 
conceivable, let alone likely, that the Algerian 
government would put them at risk by reneging on 
solemn assurances.” As I noted at the time, it 
was hardly reassuring that, if returned prisoners 
did find themselves abused, they could be 
comforted by the fact that the government, SIAC 
and the Law Lords had thought that such abuse was “barely conceivable.”

Deportation to Jordan

And finally, while the US managed to return all 
the Jordanians it was holding in Guantánamo 
apparent incident, the British government faced 
an even more uphill struggle to conclude that it 
most-celebrated would-be deportee, Abu Qatada, 
would be treated humanely on his return. In the 
same ruling in which the Law Lords declared that 
it was safe for BB and U to be returned to 
Algeria, they concluded that Abu Qatada would not 
be tortured, and would receive a fair trial -- or 
at least, would not receive “a flagrant denial of 
a fair trial” -- for two reasons; firstly, 
because, in October 2005, a human rights 
organization in Jordan “signed an agreement with 
the United Kingdom government under which it 
would monitor the due performance of the 
obligations undertaken by Jordan under the MoU,” 
and, secondly, because “the fact that he would 
have a very high profile, coupled with the MoU, 
and the diplomatic capital invested in it, meant 
that the Jordanian authorities were likely to 
make sure that he was not ill-treated in custody or when he emerged from it.”

The judges made their decision in spite of the 
fact that Abu Qatada had been previously tortured 
in Jordan, and had been convicted in absentia in 
a terror trial at which witnesses claimed they 
had been tortured to make false confessions. In 
addition, their ruling was disappointing because 
a “likelihood” that he would not be tortured is 
far from reassuring, and seems, instead, to be 
another form of Russian Roulette that plays games 
with a man’s life and with the universal torture ban.

An unnerving conclusion

For now, the deportations of Abu Qatada, BB and U 
are on hold, pending a review by the European 
Court of Human Rights, which may mean -- if both 
torture and judicial secrecy are regarded with 
the horror and scorn that they deserve -- that 
the British government will eventually be obliged 
to abandon its blanket use of secret evidence and 
its labyrinthine attempts to circumvent the 
universal torture ban, by allowing the use of 
intercept evidence and reintroducing fair trials.

Ministers might also want to reflect that, 
although Barack Obama has not magically 
dismantled the legacy of the Bush 
administration’s “War on Terror,” he is at least 
committed to 
Guantánamo within a year, has established a 
review of the prisoners’ cases that has 
to approve the release of prisoners, and is 
continuing to allow judges -- empowered by a 
Court ruling last June -- to challenge the Bush 
administration’s secret evidence, with the result 
that, in 24 of the 28 cases so far reviewed, the 
judges involved have ordered the prisoners’ 
release because the government failed to provide 
sufficient evidence that they should ever have 
been held in the first place (a summary is 
and see 
for the latest decision).

In Britain, in contrast, the government would 
still have us believe that all of its supposed 
“terror” evidence is infallible, and cannot be 
challenged, even though much of what is known 
appears to be misguided intelligence, or 
intelligence obtained through torture, and even 
though glaring errors on the part of the Home 
Office and the security services have been 
repeatedly noted over the last seven years. This 
not only makes a mockery of due process; it also 
leaves the government -- and Home Secretary 
Jacqui Smith in particular -- looking like the 
last bastion of the kind of unprincipled and 
unfettered executive power embraced by former US 
Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff 
David Addington, the architects of the “War on Terror.”

As Jane Mayer explained in her book 
Dark Side, in the summer of 2002, when John 
Bellinger, the National Security Council's top 
lawyer, tried to approach the White House 
counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to seek a review of 
the prisoners' cases -- expressing some of the 
same doubts about the US intelligence services 
that lawyers have sought to expose in relation to 
the intelligence services in the UK, and that 
judges in the US have finally been allowed to 
prove in some of the Guantánamo cases -- he was 
met with the sternest of rebukes, when a 
scheduled meeting was hijacked by David 
Addington, who declared, imperiously, “No, there 
will be no review. The President has determined 
that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

Without fair trials for “terror suspects” in the 
UK, Jacqui Smith, like Jack Straw, David 
Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid before 
her, appears to be nothing less than David 
Addington’s Anglicized twin, and in Addington’s 
statement above, all that needs changing are the 
words “President” to “Tony Blair,” and “enemy 
combatants” to “terrorists,” and the picture is 
complete. In democracies founded on the rule of 
law, it is not sufficient for an elected minister 
to maintain, as President Bush declared for over 
seven years, that it was true because he said so.

Andy Worthington is a British historian, and the 
author of 
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 
Detainees in America's Illegal Prison' (published 
by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: 
He can be reached at: 
<mailto:andy at andyworthington.co.uk>andy at andyworthington.co.uk

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