Criticized for alleged detainee torture, Britain orders review

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2009 

LONDON — Under mounting pressure to reveal Britain's role in the alleged torture of terrorism suspects abroad during Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration, his successor, Gordon Brown, ordered Thursday that new rules be drafted and made public to guide intelligence officers in interrogations.

Opposition politicians and human rights activists blasted the move as halfhearted and inadequate.

Brown said he'd requested the new guidelines to assure that intelligence procedures and systems were "robust" and to dispel public doubts, but his statement to Parliament was widely interpreted as a tacit admission that past practices were too lax.

Brown's announcement came almost two months after President Barack Obama ordered a similar review. The timing suggested that the British government has been deeply embarrassed by recent revelations that suggested Blair's government had colluded with the Bush administration in arranging for the incarceration and possible torture of British nationals in third countries.

The allegations came to a boil after the return to Britain of Ethiopian-born resident Binyam Mohamed, who'd been held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than four years. According to Mohamed's lawyers, documents indicate that he'd had been held in several countries and tortured during interrogations, allegedly with British and American involvement, before his transfer to Guantanamo.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, which is responsible for oversight of the intelligence services, revealed this week that it had secretly reopened its review of Mohamed's case, based on new information provided by the head of MI5, one of Britain's two principal intelligence services. A 2007 committee probe of Mohamed's case found that officers from MI5 and MI6 had no role in his rendition.

However, the steps, along with Brown's request that the government's intelligence services commissioner monitor the intelligence agencies' compliance with the new rules on interrogation, fell short of critics' demands for an independent judicial inquiry. Most of the allegations focused on events before Brown took over from Blair in 2007.

"The prime minister's announcement is inadequate," said Andrew Tyrie, who chairs a parliamentary committee on rendition, echoing calls for an independent investigation.

"It is ludicrous to suggest this will restore public confidence," said Clare Algar, the executive director of Reprieve, a legal-rights group that represents Mohamed and other current and former Guantanamo detainees. Algar said that Brown's reliance on the intelligence services commissioner to develop new rules of conduct and manage oversight amounted to "the fox guarding the henhouse."

The attorney general, who's also appointed by the prime minister, also is probing allegations of misconduct by the security services.

This week Manfred Nowak, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, told McClatchy that as more detainees are released from Guantanamo, he expects that court cases will be launched and reparations sought.

Nowak said he was "very concerned" that innocent people who'd been detained and tortured might be denied the possibility of seeking reparations. "Invoking the state secrecy privilege is depriving them of the right of reparation," he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross informed the Bush administration in February 2007 that the ill treatment to which detainees were subjected in CIA custody "constituted torture," according to an article by writer Mark Danner in the current issue of The New York Review of Books.

The British Foreign Office has portrayed the Americans as masterminding plans for rendition to third countries, with Britain essentially cast as an innocent bystander.

In a stinging commentary published in Thursday's Guardian newspaper, Timothy Garton Ash, a well-known professor, author and political commentator, blasted the Labor government as continuing to shirk its responsibility. The government's line, Garton Ash wrote, is "we, the British, were the good guys, it was the Americans who were the bad guys."

He portrayed Britain as playing the demeaning role of the butler Jeeves, "the faithful retainer who will put up with anything." He concluded: "Poor, stupid, self-deluding old Jeeves."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

ON THE WEB

Danner's article, "U.S. torture: Voices From the black sites"

Garton Ash's article, "This torture scandal reveals us as an ineffective Jeeves to our U.S. master"

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Obama's new detainee policy: Break from Bush, or the same?

Fried named as Guantanamo Closure Czar

U.N. report says U.S. rendition policy broke international law

Britain admits handing over terrorism suspects to U.S.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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