What will our grandchildren think?

Torture flights: our role in US brutality shames Britain

From the Sunday Herald

IF and when the so-called war on terror ever ends, our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren may well look back in disbelief and wonder how it could have been that, at the turn of the 21st century, the two nations that waged a global conflict under the banner of democracy could have so blatantly flouted that principle.

The “extraordinary renditions” programme, which breaches every law on international human rights, sees the United States target suspected terrorists anywhere in the world, kidnap them, drug them, cuff and blindfold them, bundle them on to a secret CIA jet and whisk them off to a “friendly” nation such as Egypt, Uzbekistan or Morocco, where “friendly” secret policemen can torture, rape and murder them.

The UK colludes happily with this. We allow the CIA’s fleet of jets to come in and out of UK airports to refuel and get other logistical support while they ferry their captive human cargo around the world. Scotland has the proud distinction of being the most popular stop-off point for CIA flights on the gulag-and-torture- chamber-express.

The argument that this is a necessary evil in a war against Islamic terrorists who want to blow you and your children to bits does not bear scrutiny. When the US arrests these people, it has no proof that they are terrorists. It is working on suspicion. No court will ever hear the accusations or test the evidence. These people are being “disappeared” by Western democracies.

To make the matter even more Orwellian, many of those taken captive come under suspicion only because some poor soul in a Middle-Eastern torture chamber named them to stop the beating they were enduring.

What we are engaged in is a 21st-century version of the mediaeval witch-hunt. When a suspected witch was being tortured, she’d be asked who her co-conspirators were. Of course, there were no co-conspirators, but just to stop the torture, the woman would have named someone, anyone …

But Britain and America aren’t just sending these suspects to torturers and then walking away. We are effectively in the torture chamber with the victim. Testimony from captives who have been “rendered” suggests that British and American intelligence officers are often in the same detention centre while the prisoner is being beaten and abused. Reports claim that once the torture stops, or sometimes before it starts, they drop in for a chat, and that British and American intelligence officers will give precise questions for their proxy torturers to put directly to the captive.

As we show today in our investigation into renditions, the CIA officer who developed the programme, Michael Scheuer, had not planned that it would be used in this way. He wanted those arrested to be taken back to the US, made prisoners of war and given the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross.

Our diplomats despise the programme too. As you can also read today, our man in Tashkent, Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, says that the information extracted from rendition victims under torture is fed back to the CIA and MI6 and contaminates the “intelligence pool”.

In turn, this information is used by British and American politicians in speeches to the public. How can we trust the next terror warning from Mr Blair or Mr Bush if we now know that the information they are using was wrung from someone in a Cairo torture chamber? And Murray makes it quite clear that Messrs Blair and Bush know full well the information was gathered through torture.

It is particularly ironic that such a question mark be placed over the veracity of intelligence reports when Blair is once again justifying extreme measures – in this case the more authoritarian aspects of his anti-terror legislation – with assurances that they have been forced on him by information which is available only to government ministers.

Of course, we have heard such an argument before. We were told that the war against Iraq was necessary on the basis of intelligence which only the Prime Minister and his aides were able to see. After the war, that information proved unreliable and unconvincing.

Clive Stafford Smith OBE, one of the most respected human rights lawyers operating in Britain and America, now plans to sue the UK government for complicity in the torture of one of his clients, Benyam Mohammed al-Habashi, who was “rendered” by the US. The man happened to be a UK resident, originally from Ethiopia. Torturers in Morocco took a scalpel to his penis to make him confess to plotting to “dirty bomb” the US. MI6 fed questions to the torturers and shadowed al-Habashi’s nightmarish journey through the secret gulags of the war on terror – and did nothing to stop his torment.

We welcome this attempt to test through the courts Britain’s role in these rendition flights. We believe this country should have no role in practices which fly in the face of human rights legislation, and, furthermore, we believe that we have a right to know what acts are carried out on our behalf and in our name.

Aviation laws may prevent the British government stopping such flights landing to refuel, but common decency dictates that we withdraw our support for the torture of suspects who have never been convicted in any court and who may well prove to be completely innocent.