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Six Days for Britain to Avoid War Crimes Investigation

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As the clock ticks down on the Yunus Rahmatullah case, the Ministry of Defence has been caught in another mess over its special forces in Iraq. The two cases have regrettable parallels: in both instances the MoD set its face against coming clean about the fate of its prisoners. Now it has been forced to admit the existence of the H1 blacksite, and is still stonewalling over the fate of Yunus Rahmatullah. But the time is fast approaching when the truth - all of it, however ugly - will emerge.

A brief recap: last week we learned that British involvement in Iraq's 'black sites' was far greater than we knew. The MoD was apparently up to its ears in a heretofore unknown secret prison at an airstrip in the desert called H1. We only know about H1 because one man, Tariq Sabri al-Fadhawi, was beaten to death in a Chinook en route. Given that the purpose of the detention facility was to hide prisoners from the International Committee of the Red Cross, it is safe to conclude that the fate of those who reached their destination was equally grim.

The Guardian piece exhibits the typical MoD response to these sorts of allegations: to obfuscate or lie until confronted with stark evidence of wrongdoing, whereupon officials claim that the prior falsehoods owed simply to clerical error. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, senior MoD officials were 'shocked' to find that their prisoner had been taken out of the reach of the ICRC.

We know much less of Yunus' fate in Iraq than we do of al-Fadhawi's. Yet there are parallels. Yunus was seized by UK special forces in Iraq in February 2004; he was then handed to the US, whereupon he vanishes from the known historical record for four months. In June 2004 turns up in Bagram, where he now is.

What's more interesting still about the H1 story is that it is possible that Yunus was taken there before his rendition. We have asked the MoD repeatedly to explain what happened to their prisoner in the months between February 2004, when he was picked up, and June, when he 'resurfaces' in Bagram. Despite repeated queries we have never had a straight answer on this, and at times the account has been flatly inconsistent. He was once said to have been held in Baghdad. Another time they said he was in Balad. When pressed for detail, MoD officials claimed the fate of our client, their prisoner for four months, was 'irrelevant'. While I don't know - as the MoD won't say - if I were a betting man in Renault's casino, I'd double down on my client not seeing the ICRC in Iraq at any point.

We once feared this bobbing and weaving meant Yunus was taken to Abu Ghraib. It now seems there is another possibility, one that would reflect very poorly indeed on the MoD.

So was Yunus Rahmatullah sent to H1? Was he sent to Abu Ghraib, a site through which dozens of other unregistered detainees slated for CIA interrogation and rendition apparently passed without record?

We may shortly find out. He has been ordered released by the UK Court of Appeal because his rendition and detention are and were illegal under Geneva, and because the US promised in 2003 to send all UK-seized prisoners back to the UK upon request. That promise is now being tested - the UK has apparently asked for Yunus - and on 20th February we will see whether America's promises to Britain have any value. There are now just six days left for the British government to extract its prisoner from Bagram.

If they fail on the basis that the US feels no obligation to keep its promise and hand him over, the MoD must expect promptly to be sued, and for a war crimes report to be made to the police.

Difficult questions will follow swiftly. Precisely when did the UK 'wash their hands' of Yunus? Who was involved in the decision? Given all that was known, and known early, about torture in US detention facilities in Iraq (and in Bagram) at the time, the Geneva Conventions required them to intercede. To have failed to do so is properly the subject of a Metropolitan Police investigation - it is a war crime.

So what if the 20th comes, and Yunus is still imprisoned? Who will be held accountable for his rendition to a black site in Bagram, possibly via yet another grim black site in Iraq? Will we ever know where Yunus went for those dark months before he went to Afghanistan? The MoD's plan is apparently not to say - to wait as long as possible to acknowledge where, exactly, their prisoner was taken, and how he was treated.

This is a mistake. The government is seeking to shunt all cases like Yunus Rahmatullah into secret courts - itself an entirely separate scandal -- but they will have a bitter fight on their hands to keep the truth from coming out. And what of the Met? MOD officials may imagine themselves immune from police investigation. They would do well to talk to Sir Mark Allen and the rest of the UK security establishment now under the microscope of Scotland Yard over the Libya renditions.

The MoD certainly owes the public an explanation over H1 and over Yunus. Questions will keep coming, and they will be hard pressed not to answer.

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