Ministers refuse to answer torture questions

• Miliband and Smith snub human rights committee
• MPs want head of MI5 to explain conduct of officers

David Miliband and Jacqui Smith have both refused to appear before Parliament’s human rights committee to answer questions about allegations of British collusion in the torture of British citizens and residents detained during counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan.

In a move that dismayed members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), a joint letter from the foreign secretary and home secretary is also said to have failed to answer any of the eight questions that the committee asked about legal provisions offering MI5 officers immunity in the UK for crimes committed overseas. The JCHR is now asking Jonathan Evans, the director-general of MI5, to appear before it to be questioned about the agency’s policy and the conduct of his officers.

MPs and peers on the committee are also expected to demand again that Miliband and Smith answer their questions, while its chairman, Andrew Dismore, says the ministers’ refusal may trigger demands for an independent inquiry into the allegations. Dismore said it was “deeply disappointing” that neither minister had agreed to appear before the committee, but added: “This inquiry isn’t over yet.” He said MPs may wish to consider an independent inquiry modelled along the lines of one held in Canada, which examined official collusion in the US rendition programme and recommended changes in the supervision of Canadian intelligence services. “We don’t want to hang people out to dry, this isn’t about pointing the finger, but we do want to get at the truth,” Dismore said. “If people have been tortured, we can’t untorture them, but we can make recommendations about how this can be avoided in the future.”

The JCHR opened its inquiry after hearing evidence from the Guardian, which has been investigating allegations that British intelligence officers have colluded in the torture of terrorism suspects, and Human Rights Watch, which says the allegations have been confirmed by officials in the UK and Pakistan. Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, said yesterday of Miliband and Smith: “What are they afraid of? There are serious questions here about allegations of UK involvement in torture. The ministers are really inviting speculation that the UK government has something to hide.” A number of suspects have been questioned by British intelligence officials, including MI5 officers, after periods of alleged torture by interrogators from Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate.

According to evidence heard at the high court during proceedings brought on behalf of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was freed from Guantanamo Bay last week, an interrogation policy which subsequently led to detainees being tortured in Pakistan was devised by MI5 lawyers and figures in government.

Last year Manchester Crown Court heard that MI5 and Greater Manchester police passed questions to ISI officers so that they could be put to Rangzieb Ahmed, 35, from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, after he was detained in Pakistan in August 2006. A judge later ruled that Ahmed was being illegally detained in inhumane conditions at the time and was possibly being subjected to sleep deprivation.

By the time Ahmed was deported to the UK 13 months later, and successfully prosecuted for terrorism offences and jailed for life, three of his fingernails had been removed from his left hand. His lawyers are appealing against the judge’s ruling that the fingernails were not extracted during early interrogation sessions while he was being asked the questions passed over by MI5 and Manchester police.

A number of other Britons detained in Pakistan, who say they were questioned by British intelligence officers after being tortured by the ISI have been subsequently prosecuted, or deported to the UK and subjected to control orders.

One vanished in mysterious circumstances in Pakistan and was subsequently said to have been killed in a US missile attack. A number of others have been released without charge. A British medical student was held for almost two months in a building opposite the offices of the British deputy high commission in Karachi. He says he was tortured while being questioned about the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London’s transport network before being questioned by two British intelligence officers.

Binyam Mohamed was detained in Pakistan in 2002 and questioned by MI5 officers before being “rendered” by the United States to Morocco, where his lawyers claim he suffered appalling torture, including having his genitals slashed with a razor. It emerged in court that MI5 passed material to the CIA that was used during his interrogation.

The ministers’ refusal comes just weeks after Miliband moved to prevent the release of information from 42 US intelligence documents that the high court says contain “powerful evidence” of the torture of Binyam Mohamed and which may have revealed what British ministers knew of his treatment.

Saturday 28 February 2009
Ian Cobain

Source: The Guardian

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