Foreign Office Minister Misled Parliament Over UN Meeting on Extraordinary Rendition

By Marie Woolf in The Independent

Pressure over the use of British airports for secret CIA torture flights increased dramatically yesterday after it emerged that a Foreign Office minister misled Parliament over a meeting between the UN and UK civil servants about the issue.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that Lord Triesman, the Foreign Office minister, misled peers when he told the House of Lords that no such meeting had ever occurred.

But Martin Scheinin, the UN Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur, travelled to London to hold meetings with Home Office and Foreign Office officials between 21 and 22 November last year. He raised concerns about the issue of “extraordinary rendition” – the policy of moving terror suspects to countries that use torture – and is so concerned following the lack of disclosure that he is writing to ministers.

In his recent parliamentary reply to Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, the senior Liberal Democrat MP, Lord Triesman said: “As far as we are aware, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials have not held meetings with United Nations officials since 1 November on extraordinary rendition.”

The Foreign Office admitted yesterday that the answer was incorrect and that one of its civil servants had been at a Home Office meeting with Dr Scheinin, where rendition was discussed, eight weeks ago.

Lord Oakeshott wrote yesterday to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and accused the Government of presiding over a “culture of concealment and cover-up” on the issue. He wrote: “The FCO did not properly check or did not want to check the facts before giving me that reply.”

MPs and peers yesterday tightened the screw over rendition and said ministers will be summoned before a parliamentary committee to state whether they have been “wilfully ignorant” about CIA flights through UK airports.

Harriet Harman, the constitutional affairs minister, is to be called before the influential Joint Committee on Human Rights to explain whether the US has covertly flown people to states where torture or cruel and degrading treatment is used, via UK airports. The Government will also come under pressure this week from the human rights group Liberty which is to write to Mr Straw urging him to cooperate with a promised inquiry by Michael Todd, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester police.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, accused the Government of ” bending over backwards not to ask questions” about rendition and said there needed to be a “positive investigation” into CIA flights which may have passed through the UK without official government permission.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is considering summoning the Foreign Secretary to answer questions about whether Whitehall knew about the ” torture flights”.

In a report last year, the committee accused the Government of failing to answer questions about extraordinary rendition “with the transparency and accountability required on so serious an issue”.

The report called on the Government to “end its policy of obfuscation and that it give straight answers” to questions posed by MPs.

Andrew Tyrie, the Tory chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on rendition, accused the Government of “wilful ignorance” and said he had first written to ministers about the issue in 2003.

Mr Scheinin said he had continuing concerns about the practice of rendition following his meeting with officials, and was now planning to write to ministers.

“I met Foreign Office and Home Office officials on 21 and 22 November. I did raise the issue of rendition. I did raise concerns… They didn’t tell me much. The ball is now in my court,” he said. “The next step is to write to ministers.”

Louise Arbour, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, is to travel to the UK next month to meet officials from the Home Office, Foreign Office and Department for International Development where the issue is also expected to be raised.