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Cori Crider

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The Government's Un-British Plans to Keep Torture Secret

Posted: 17/11/2011 22:00

Last month I spent time with Khadidja al Saadi, a 19-year-old girl who MI6 and CIA rendered back to Gaddadfi's regime when she was 14. Her three siblings, her mum, and her father Sami were with her. Her father, the target of the operation, spent years being beaten and electrocuted in Libyan Intelligence chief Moussa Koussa's torture chambers.

Khadidja's story, and the UK's shameful role in it, only emerged in the last few months, and only because Libyan rebels found the smoking gun in Moussa Koussa's office: letters from Mark Allen of MI6 to Koussa saying, and I paraphrase just a little, 'Dear Moussa, so sorry you missed Christmas lunch, well done on these renditions, looking forward to the debrief'.

It is important to remember it today, as Foreign Secretary William Hague claims a line has been drawn under such allegations, an Inquiry established to deal with them, and therefore it is now ok to get on with the business of extending secret trials in Britain. The reality is that new evidence on torture continues to bubble up - and Mr Hague's proposals on changes to the British justice system are designed not to address these abuses, but simply to keep them secret.

Here's the big problem with the Foreign Secretary's defence of the Government's plans to extend secret trials on national security grounds: In Great Britain, for a number of years now, trials that involve sensitive national security information are already heard in closed court proceedings. Information about a placed source? Heard in closed proceedings. About the fact or technique of a wiretap? In closed proceedings. The identity of an agent? Ditto. By and large, the British courts have been entirely deferential to the Government's request for secrecy where national security interests are genuinely at stake.

Given all this, the question arises: what is really driving this effort by the Government to expand secret trials? In the Justice and Security Green Paper, where its ideas are set out, the Government fails signally to state what categories of information it is going to protect. But the greatest clue lies in what it proposes to do.

There is one area where the British judiciary has consistently refused to go along with the Government's request for secrecy. That is complicity in torture. As Reprieve always says, of course some matters are properly secret - but whether British agents during the 'war on terror' have become involved in the torture of prisoners must not be one of them. What question could be more clearly in the public interest?

When you look at what ministers are looking to do to the justice system in this country, it becomes regrettably clear that complicity in torture is what they are seeking to keep secret. They propose to eliminate so-called Norwich Pharmacal cases where 'national security' information (in the Government's view) is at stake. Had that been the rule at the time Binyam Mohamed brought his claim, the public still would not know about British involvement in torture. William Hague warned then against 'bury[ing] our heads in the sand' when it came torture allegations - yet two years on, this seems precisely what he is trying to do.

The Government also proposes to shunt into a closed process all cases where a torture victim sues the security services. This makes little sense, given that such a case is by definition historical and will involve comparatively little operational intelligence. Where sensitive information does arise in those cases, there is a time-honoured procedure for protecting the information - Public Interest Immunity - that works well. What the Government dislikes about it is that it does not depend merely on executive say-so; they must instead make their case to a judge. Perhaps most worrying of all, ministers propose not just dramatically to expand secret trials to whole new categories of cases, but also suggest that they will no longer give a prisoner or a claimant even a 'gist' - a basic sense - of the closed case against them.

The basic British ideal of justice is that a trial is a fair fight between two sides. The government's proposals will force torture victims seeking justice to do so effectively blindfolded. In other cases, where vital information is sought, the government's proposals will slam the court's door shut altogether. Both of these are disastrous.

In short, if the proposals which the Foreign Secretary is defending today become law, we will not know how we as a country got to the point where we were rendering 14-year-old Khadidja and her family into the hands of Gaddafi and his torturer-in-chief.

When this first emerged, the Prime Minister sought to deflect criticism over the Libya renditions by saying the Gibson Inquiry into torture and rendition 'would be looking at the cases'. As it happens, the inquiry didn't know the cases existed until they broke in the media. Time and again the security services have proven themselves unable to clean their own house. Judicial oversight is an essential part of this process in the UK. The government's proposal to hobble the judiciary is highly dangerous - and deeply un-British.

 

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