Daily archives: October 24, 2004

The Observer – There is no case for torture, ever

The Observer – There is no case for torture – ever (by Nick Cohen)

The troubles of Craig Murray, the sacked British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, appear at first glance to be a shocking exception to the rules of public life. When was the last time you heard of a case of a diplomat accused of drunken orgies and sexual blackmail after he had discomforted his masters in Whitehall? You don’t have to be Michael Moore to wonder if the Foreign Office needed to revert to the unparalleled tactic of tipping wheelbarrow loads of dirt over Murray to bury his bad news that Britain was in the market for information extracted by torturers.

Murray’s allegation is shocking because, say what you like about England, it has shunned torture for centuries. If you look a bit closer, however, you find that torture is no longer as exceptional as it once was. With many a sigh and expression of regret the Government is reaching an arrangement with torturers, and not only in Uzbekistan. English judges have accepted that confessions beaten out of suspects can be used for the first time since the 1630s. The only reaction, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, could manage to their extraordinary decision was the Peck sniffian bleat that he had the ‘awful feeling’ that learning to live with torture ‘is probably the right conclusion.’ As with so many other descents into barbarism, the judges and ministers make each step on the downward path appear eminently reasonable.

However strenuously the wishful thinkers of Western liberalism deny there is much to worry about, Islamism remains a psychopathic and totalitarian creed which sanctions the indiscriminate murder of countless victims. Reasonable governments know that the battle must be joined and that they must work to prevent crimes beyond the imagination of the world before 11 September.

But how should the security services react? Take the example of Murray’s Uzbekistan. It is caught in the same vice as many Muslim countries. On one side is a repressive government. On the other is an opposition some of whose members are turning to Islamism. You might have thought MI6 would be watching. Right and left fantasise about the spies’ reach and power: they either uncover deadly subversives or target every ‘freedom’ movement according to political taste. Both parties are united by the assumption that the security services have a competence bordering on the omniscient. What else is the near-universally believed charge that Blair lied about Iraq based on but the delusory notion that John Scarlett of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Sir Richard Dearlove of MI6 knew that Saddam had disarmed and were silenced?

In fact MI6 doesn’t have one spy in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or any of the other dangerous central Asian republics. It’s a small organisation which employs about 2000 people, many of them support staff. Even if it did have the resources to put men in Tashkent, what could they do? Roam Uzbekistan breaking into houses and interrogating suspects? In the circumstances it seems a reasonable step for the Foreign Office to take information from the oppressive governments of central Asia and the Middle East, even if there is a danger that it has been extracted by torturers. And it would be reasonable if, say, a plot by Uzbek exiles in London was treated simply as a tip-off which led to searches, surveillance and all the other normal means for collecting evidence which would stand up in a British court. If torture was involved, it would be somewhere far back down the line in a foreign country of which we knew little. The integrity of the case brought against the suspects in Britain wouldn’t be threatened.

What is now threatening the integrity of the criminal justice system is the internment of foreign terrorist suspects without trial or knowledge of the charges against them. Their claim that their detention is illegal was rejected by the Court of Appeal in August and is cur rently being considered by the Law Lords. Most media attention has been on the main argument by human rights groups that the law is discriminatory because it allows foreigners to be detained indefinitely while British citizens enjoy full civil rights. This is one of the many occasions when liberals should be careful of what they wish for.

The Government could very easily become a model of impartiality by interning British citizens alongside the alleged enemy aliens. David Blunkett has dropped strong hints that he would want to do just that if there was an Islamist attack on Britain, and I doubt if he would be stopped by a wave of public revulsion.

Far less attention has been given to the ruling by two of the three judges on the Court of Appeal that it was fine to hold men on the basis of evidence extracted by torture. No one can actually say that this happened because, contrary to all the principles of English justice, they aren’t allowed to know what they are meant to have done. But their lawyers suspect that they have been jailed because of confessions from inmates at Guantanamo Bay who have been threatened with dogs, stripped and kept in solitary confinement. Their allegation goes way beyond the charge that the security services followed up leads from brutal foreign agencies. It suggests that people are being held indefinitely in British jails because a naked man beset by dogs named him to placate his tormentors.

So what, snapped the Court of Appeal. There is no other way, blubbed Lord Falconer.

Their accommodation with torture is astonishing on many levels. The first is its hypocrisy. The court said that the British state was still forbidden from conniving in or procuring torture. If its agents reached for the cosh or the electric flex, they would be breaking the law. But if evidence extracted by foreign torturers was now admissible, why should the gloves be kept on British hardmen? Why should our boys be held back simply because of their British citizenship?

The Court of Appeal had no coherent answer, and the nonchalance with which it endorsed foreign torturers showed how feeble national traditions have become. Until the war of terror, it was inconceivable that an English court would accept that a man could be jailed on the basis of torture, albeit torture conducted by shifty foreigners. The English didn’t do torture. Uniquely in medieval Christendom, the English common law forbad the extraction of evidence under duress.

The exception to the benign rule was the Court of Star Chamber, which was allowed to torture the king’s enemies. Its barbaric practices were one cause of the civil war. Such was the hatred it aroused that ‘Star Chamber justice’ remains a contemptuous condemnation of arbitrary power to this day.

Writing at the high point of liberal Victorian self-confidence Lord Macaulay said that Star Chamber was an aberration which, ‘after the lapse of more than two centuries,’ was still ‘held in deep abhorrence by the nation’. It ‘displayed a rapacity, a violence, a malignant energy, which had been unknown to any former age’. I’m not sure if the English can be quite as self-confident about the decency of the national tradition today. It’s not that Star Chamber is back, rather that, as with so many other services, torture has been out-sourced to the third world where bothersome regulation is less intrusive.

What is dispiriting about the degeneracy of the Government and the Court of Appeal is that the old lessons have to be learned once again. The reasons why first England and then the civilised world rejected torture were practical as well as moral. Most people break under torture. Most people say whatever they have to say to stop the pain. When names are suggested to them, they agree. If the torturer wants to implicate the innocent or invent imaginary plots, he usually gets what he wants from his victim.

If the Law Lords doubt the wisdom of centuries and are considering upholding the Court of Appeal’s verdict, may I suggest a small experiment? If they give me a law officer, the Lord Chancellor perhaps, or the Director of Public Prosecutions, and a couple of heavies, and leave us alone in a locked room, I think I can guarantee that within a week he will have revealed that the entire senior judiciary are members of al-Qaeda.

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