Amanatullah Ali (Photo: Reprieve)
In 2004, the UK detained two men in Iraq - Amanatullah Ali and Yunus Rahmatullah - and handed them over to the US, who tortured and 'rendered' them to Afghanistan. There, at the secretive Bagram detention facility, they were held for 10 years without charge, trial or access to a lawyer. Originally exposed by Reprieve, it is the only known instance to date where the UK detained people who were then turned over to the US for rendition and torture.
On Tuesday, the High Court held a hearing in a case brought by Amanatullah and Yunus, who are seeking some measure of justice for their ordeal. But in under an hour, Government lawyers had demanded a secretive "Closed Material Procedure", the first time these new, controversial powers have been used to bury the truth in a renditions case. The Government has suggested that details of the men's torture and rendition should be kept secret. These abuses are serious breaches of British law, held as "abhorrent" since the Magna Carta was signed.
The doors of the court were slammed on the media, the public and even the victims' lawyers - everyone but the "Special Advocate" (the secret lawyer), the government lawyers, and the judge - and perhaps a smattering of secret agents sitting in the gallery. If MI6 has its way, what was said behind those closed doors will remain there.
Secret justice is no justice at all, anathema to long held principles of open British justice. But in this case, there is a particularly powerful need for transparency, given that the spooks have misled the ministers who in turn misled Parliament. Now the Government wants to consign all this dissembling to the darkness of a secret court.
The main argument offered in favour of secrecy was the need to keep secret the intelligence leading to this catastrophic mistake. Yet we, at Reprieve, already know what happened, as we have conducted a lengthy investigation. An open hearing would highlight how the security services (here, apparently, MI6) was operating on some truly "alternative" facts. They thought Amanatullah was a high-ranking member of the Sunni extremist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In reality, he was a simple rice trader from Pakistan, who had joined thousands of pilgrims travelling to Iraq to visit holy shrines that had been unavailable under Saddam Hussein.
Everyone can make mistakes and they should generally be forgiven if they admit them. But here these two men spent more than a decade being abused in Bagram because MI6 was intent on concealing its error. And for 13 years, ministers have covered-up MI6's blunder - parroting what the agency told them, and insisting Amanatullah was an LeT terrorist.
Successive British Governments have for years refused to come clean over their part in the US rendition programme, which saw detainees flown around the world to face torture in secret prisons. At first, they claimed that Britain had no involvement in American torture at all. In 2005, a little over a year after Amanatullah's rendition, Jack Straw patronised the British public by claiming that such allegations were "conspiracy theories". This, and a range of other statements, turned out to be misleading and the Government was forced to correct them. John Hutton, Defence Secretary in 2009, admitted Amanatullah's rendition should have been "questioned". They knew these men would be rendered but did nothing to stop it. To this day the Government is paying its lawyers to maintain falsehoods about Amanatullah.
The Government's attempt to trample on the rights of an impoverished torture victim far away in Pakistan is simply offensive. Amanatullah wants answers, to ensure that his ordeal does not happen to anyone else. He will have to learn to live with the years of abuse he has suffered at US hands. But what keeps him up at night is why he was handed over to the US in the first place.
He was not who the UK thought he was. Equally, Britain has not been the nation he thought it was. He holds the British legal system in high esteem. He believes that Britain is guided by a set of principles that include open justice and the rule of law. So far, this Government is proving him wrong.
Justice must be done, and seen to be done particularly when Torturer-in-Chief Trump threatens to drag Britain back into American excesses. A public airing is the only way to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We can only hope that the Court will see how important it is for the truth to come out.
Omran Belhadi is a lawyer with the legal action charity Reprieve, which has provided pro bono assistance to Amanatullah Ali and Yunus Rahmatullah.Suggest a correction