UN attacks Britain over torture claims

Investigator raises ‘very clear allegations’ that MI5 broke international law

Britain may have broken international law on torture, ministers have been warned by the United Nations. Professor Manfred Nowak, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, has alerted ministers to a range of concerns, including claims that MI5 officers were complicit in the maltreatment of suspects.

The Austrian law professor warned that Britain has breached the UN convention on torture, and he revealed that he was organising a fact-finding mission to Pakistan, whose security services allegedly tortured terror suspects before the captives were questioned by British intelligence.

It is the first time the UN’s senior torture investigator has directly criticised a British government. Human rights groups said it was highly significant. Clare Algar, executive director of legal charity Reprieve, said: “This is a further significant embarrassment for the British government and reinforces the fact that we really need an independent review into what has been going on.”

Related article: Ministers refuse to answer torture questions (Guardian)

Nowak appeared to criticise the foreign secretary, David Miliband, for blocking the release of US files allegedly confirming MI5 involvement in the torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed. Miliband said releasing the documents could do “real and significant damage” to British national security.

Nowak, who reports to the UN’s human rights council and the general assembly, said: “I am very concerned about the fact that allegations of torture actually cannot be really investigated because of the state secrecy privilege.

“We must get away from the use of the state secrecy privilege as a way of quashing court cases and litigation from victims of torture being heard in public.”

After claims by Pakistani intelligence agents that they routinely tortured terror suspects with the knowledge of MI5 and MI6, Nowak revealed that Pakistan is denying his request for a fact-finding mission.

However, the disclosure that the UN has raised the issue of torture repeatedly with the UK will intensify pressure on ministers to answer the allegations. Even so, both Miliband and the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, have refused to testify to a parliamentary committee on allegations of British collusion.

“The policies of the United Kingdom, we feel, have touched my mandate, such as the issue of diplomatic assurances. I have been in regular contact with the British government,” added Nowak, who last week met US officials in Washington on issues such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay and claims of torture by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The whole question of co-operation between the British and the US government in the fight against terror is an area of concern – the co-operating on these rendition flights and of course the interrogations,” said Nowak.

He said he raised concerns with governments only when allegations appeared to be substantive and that he had raised issues through UK diplomatic channels to ensure “full accordance with the prohibition of torture”.

“If I send a communication to a government it’s usually done on the basis that I have received very clear allegations by a non-governmental or other source,” he said. He said that if allegations of MI5 officers’ complicity in torture were substantiated, it would constitute a breach of the UN convention on torture. “A country should also not be complicit in torture. If you clearly participate in interrogation or are using information that was extracted by torture, you might also be complicit,” said Nowak.

“Interrogating people in prisons where there is evidence that they have been tortured, even if you do not torture them yourself … it’s a slippery slope,” added Nowak.

The Foreign Office said it had examined all claims of mistreatment involving British officials. It added that it did not object to the release of the Mohamed documents if the US agreed.

Sunday 1 March 2009
Mark Townsend

Source: The Observer

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