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How the UK Foreign Office covered up war crimes in the name of “official secrecy”

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From Al Jazeera

It’s a case involving allegations of torture, long-hidden government records, and a successful anti-colonial struggle.

Four Kenyans, including two who say they were castrated, sexually abused and severely beaten in a British-run prison camp during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s, have launched a lawsuit against the UK government. Legal proceedings begin in London on Thursday.

“I don’t think many people are aware of the idea that the British government was involved in the systematic torture and abuse of people fighting for their freedom,” said Martyn Day, a senior partner at Leigh Day & Co, the law firm representing aging Kenyan activists…

The historical research of David Anderson, a specialist of African politics at Oxford University, has played a crucial role in the case.

During archival searches in Kenya and the UK during the 1990s, he found the British had “deliberately” taken documents out of Kenya before the country declared independence in 1963.

“It was a conspiracy to conceal things from the Kenyan government,” Anderson told Al Jazeera, adding that British law, specifically the Public Records Act of 1958, prohibits this sort of behavior.

Anderson interviewed a number of senior former colonial officials to ask whether documents were removed from Kenya. “They shrugged in kind of a cagey way and said ‘what do you think?’ You don’t leave your dirty laundry for the new house dwellers to find it, you take it with you.”

Historians estimate that at least 90,000 Kenyans were executed or tortured between 1952 and 1960, with tens of thousands more detained under brutal conditions as they fought for independence. Mau Mau rebels are also blamed for violent attacks on white farmers and colonial authorities.

“The experience of these claimants was not unique,” said Anderson, who has written several books about Kenya. “I would go as far to say that torture was systemic, it was part of a system of detention and abuse, organised in a pragmatic way.”

Lawyers for the UK government will argue the case should be thrown out of court because the events in question happened decades ago and are difficult to prove today. “That [time delay] will be in big issue heard by the court in the next few days,” said Day, the plaintiff’s lawyer.

“They [lawyers for the government] also say we are suing the wrong people; they say we should be suing the Kenyan government,” Day told Al Jazeera…

‘Cover-up’ or bungle-up?

Records from the UK Foreign Office, discovered as part of the court case, could include information on torture.

In November 2010, in the lead up to the case, Anderson issued a statement to the court, detailing why he believed records existed.

The judge took the historian’s letter seriously and instructed the Foreign Office to find the documents which they previously said did not exist.

“Within 48 hours, they [Foreign Office officials] had the documents,” said Anderson. Officials later admitted they made a mistake in not locating the documents earlier. “I am not sure if I entirely swallow that explanation,” Anderson said. “I think this was a conspiracy that became a cock-up.” He stressed that the contents of the secret files remain unknown…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

Posted in Corruption, torture

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Appeal Court rules UK government can’t use secret/imaginary evidence to defend torture complicity case

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Here’s a rule of thumb for British politics that I’ve found quite useful over the years:

When a government minister says that they have some special secret evidence up their sleeve that totally vindicates their position but which for “security reasons” they can’t reveal, it’s usually safe to assume that they are lying through their teeth. This was famously the case with the secret (aka “imaginary”) evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

You can judge for yourself whether the same is true of the Foreign Office’s attempt to use secret evidence to defend a court case being brought over its role in the torture of Binyam Mohamed and a number of other “War on Terror” detainees.

From The Guardian:

The court of appeal has dismissed an attempt by MI5 and MI6 to suppress evidence of their alleged complicity in the torture and secret transfer of British residents to Guantánamo Bay.

In a devastating judgment, it ruled that the unprecedented attempt by the security and intelligence agencies, backed by the attorney general and senior Whitehall officials, to suppress evidence in a civil trial undermined deep-seated principles of common law and open justice.

MI5 and MI6 said evidence in the case, in which the Guardian, the Times and the BBC intervened, should be kept secret from everyone except the judges and specially appointed and vetted counsel.

The former detainees – Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes and Martin Mubanga – have denied any involvement in terrorism and allege that MI5 and MI6 aided and abetted their unlawful imprisonment and extraordinary rendition to various locations around the world, including Guantánamo. They are seeking compensation for abuse and wrongful imprisonment.

In their ruling, Lord Neuberger, master of the rolls, Lord Justice Maurice Kay, and Lord Justice Sullivan said that accepting the case of the security and intelligence agencies would amount to “undermining one of [the common law's] most fundamental principles”.

“A further fundamental common law principle is that trials should be conducted in public, and the judgments should be given in public.

“In our view the principle that a litigant should be able to see and hear all the evidence which is seen and heard by a court determining his case is so fundamental, so embedded in the common law that, in the absence of parliamentary authority, no judge should override it, at any rate in relation to an ordinary civil claim …”

Written by Richard Wilson

May 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Pocket journalism: Telegraph hack Con Coughlin goes into bat for torture

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In the early days of the Iraq war, Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin was famously obliging in disseminating the bogus claims of the US and UK governments about Weapons of Mass Destruction and a supposed link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

When the focus of US “public diplomacy” switched towards the clamour for military action in Iran, Coughlin was equally helpful in promoting unsubstantiated claims about a link between Al Qaeda and the Iranian government.

Amid growing evidence that many of the false (yet politically useful) intelligence claims used to justify the Iraq war came from confessions extracted through torture, one might think that Coughlin, and the Telegraph, would now treat the assertions of the security services with a little more scepticism.

Instead, Coughlin seems to have gone the other way, cautioning Barack Obama not to “pick a fight with Dick Cheney”, asserting, without offering any evidence, that “We know that at least two major terrorist attacks against the UK were avoided thanks to vital intelligence provided to MI6 and MI5 by the CIA”, and suggesting that “There are always two sides to a story”.

“Are interrogation methods like waterboarding justified if they save lives”, Coughlin asks, “or should we respect the detainees’ human rights, thereby enabling the terror attacks to take place and claim innocent lives? I know which option I’d go for.”

UN condemns UK government over torture complicity

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From The Guardian:

Britain is condemned today in a highly critical UN report for breaching basic human rights and “trying to conceal illegal acts” in the fight against terrorism.

The report is sharply critical of British co-operation in the transfer of detainees to places where they are likely to be tortured as part of the US rendition programme. It accuses British ­intelligence officers of interviewing detainees held ­incommunicado in Pakistan in ­”so-called safe houses where they were being tortured”.

It adds that Britain, and a number of other countries, sent interrogators to Guantánamo Bay in a further example of what “can be reasonably understood as implicitly condoning” torture and ill-treatment. It said the US was able to create its system for moving terror suspects around foreign jails only with the support of its allies.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Was this why the UK Ministry of Defence decided to smear Human Rights Watch?

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A couple of weeks ago, anonymous Ministry of Defence Officials were accused of smearing Human Rights Watch by suggesting, falsely, that the HRW researcher in Afghanistan had improperly obtained official secrets by becoming (to use the standard euphemistic term)  “close” to a British army officer.

Now it’s been revealed that HRW are shortly to release a report giving detailed evidence of complicity in torture by UK government officials in neighbouring Pakistan.

From the Observer:

Among the 10 identified cases of British citizens and residents mentioned in the report is Rangzieb Ahmed, 33, from Rochdale, who claims he was tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by two MI5 officers. Ahmed was convicted of being a member of al-Qaida at Manchester crown court, yet the jury was not told that three of the fingernails of his left hand had been removed. The response from MI5 to the allegations that it had colluded in Ahmed’s torture were heard in camera, however, after the press and the public were excluded from the proceedings. Ahmed’s description of the cell in which he claims he was tortured closely matches that where Salahuddin Amin, 33, from Luton, says he was tortured by ISI officers between interviews with MI5 officers.

Zeeshan Siddiqui, 25, from London, who was detained in Pakistan in 2005, also claims he was interviewed by British intelligence agents during a period in which he was tortured.

Other cases include that of a London medical student who was detained in Karachi and tortured after the July 2005 attacks in London. Another case involving Britons allegedly tortured in Pakistan and questioned by UK agents involves a British Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter.

Rashid Rauf, from Birmingham, was detained in Pakistan and questioned over suspected terrorist activity in 2006. He was reportedly killed after a US drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal regions, though his body has never been found.

Hasan said: “What the research suggests is that these are not incidents involving one particular rogue officer or two, but rather an array of individuals involved over a period of several years.

“The issue is not just British complicity in the torture of British citizens, it is the issue of British complicity in the torture period. We know of at least 10 cases, but the complicity probably runs much deeper because it involves a series of terrorism suspects who are Pakistani. This is the heart of the matter.

“They are not the same individuals [MI5 officers] all the time. I know that the people who have gone to see Siddiqui in Peshawar are not the same people who have seen Ahmed in Rawalpindi.”

Last night the government faced calls to clarify precisely its relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which are known to routinely use torture.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 22, 2009 at 10:18 pm

God, Tony and Torture

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From The Observer

When I talk to people at very senior levels in government, I don’t find them willing to put a hand on heart and swear that British agents were never complicit in torture. British and American intelligence are closely enmeshed; it stretches credulity to snapping point that no one in the Blair government knew what was being perpetrated.

On the same day that the foreign secretary was facing accusations of a cover-up, Tony Blair was in Washington wearing his faith on his sleeve. At a “prayer breakfast” with Barack Obama, the former prime minister made more than 30 mentions of God and declared: “We pray that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will.”

Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period. It was not as if the Bush administration made much pretence about it. “Bad things happen to bad people,” baldly declared Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Did Tony Blair never ask what was going on? If he did not ask, was it because he knew he would not like the answer? His own law officers were highly uncomfortable with the legal black hole created at Guantánamo. Charlie Falconer, not only his lord chancellor but also one of his closest allies, tried to persuade his friend to raise his voice in opposition. He failed. “An anomaly” was all Mr Blair would ever say about Camp Delta when he was prime minister.

The true extent to which British officials colluded in torture is yet to be established. In terms of ethical complicity, I think we can already begin to return a verdict. As the God-fearing Tony Blair knows, there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. “We have condoned with our silence torture committed by others,” says Charles Guthrie, his favourite general.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 8:39 am

Cheney makes an early start on his “too ill to stand trial” defence…

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pinochet

Compare…                                                                     …and contrast.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Bush administration admits torture, UK government admits “war on terror” was misconceived.

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A couple of gobsmackers from today’s Guardian:

US lawyers battling against torture and other abuses at Guantánamo Bay are braced for George Bush issuing last-minute pardons to protect those in his administration most closely implicated.

The lawyers’ warning came after a senior member of the Bush administration, Susan Crawford, admitted for the first time that torture had been carried out. Until now, the Bush administration, in particular the vice-president, Dick Cheney, had denied the interrogation techniques at Guantánamo constituted torture.

Crawford’s admission of torture is in relation to the case of a Saudi national, Mohammed al-Qahtani, 30, accused of involvement in the 9/11 attack. He is often referred to by US authorities as the “20th hijacker”. He was denied entry to the US in August 2001 and captured in Afghanistan in 2002. He was tortured for a month and then kept in isolation.

Crawford, a Pentagon official who last year was put in charge of military commissions that decide whether detainees should be tried, told the Washington Post: “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution].” She added: “The techniques they used were all authorised, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent.”

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The foreign secretary, David Miliband, today declared that the use of the phrase “war on terror” as a western rallying cry since the September 11 attacks had been a mistake that may have caused “more harm than good”.

In an article in today’s Guardian, five days before the Bush administration leaves the White House, Miliband delivered a comprehensive critique of its defining mission, saying that the war on terror was misconceived and that the west cannot “kill its way” out of the threats it faces.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 15, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Roger Darlington reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Roger Darlington’s website.

…a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:

  • Pseudo-news such as the testimony of a certain ‘Nurse Nayirah’ in 1990 that Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait had removed babies from incubators or the insistence of American and British politicians that Saddam’s Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction;
  • Pseudo-science such as the efforts to show that smoking does not cause cancer or that white asbestos poses no measurable risk to health or that Trofim Lysenko in the pre-war Soviet Union had revolutionary techniques to transform agriculture or that South African President Thambo Mbeki was right in insisting that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS;
  • Conspiracy theories such as the assertion by ex British agent David Shayler that the London bombings of July 2007 were not the act of terrorists;
  • Relativism which, in its most radical form, asserts that there are no objective facts, only competing strands of subjective opinion, and even in ‘milder’ forms like cultural relativism rejects logic and evidence as ‘western’ or ‘imperialist’ modes of thinking;
  • Religious fundamentalism which requires belivers to accept on faith the absolute truth of a prescribed list of written beliefs even when the relevant texts are obscure, contradictory or contrary to evidence;
  • The justifications given for torture by democratic states like the USA and for terrorism given by extremist groups who likewise believe that the ends justify the means.

Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: “The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and ‘inductive reasoning’ are common to every human society and present in all belief systems”.

Sceptic of the week – Craig Murray

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Craig Murray was UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan from October 2002 to October 2004, when he was removed from his post after repeatedly highlighting the systematic use of torture by the Uzbek authorities. Murray had been sent to Uzbekistan by the UK Foreign Office with a brief that explicitly included the promotion of human rights – but when he began to do so – both in public speeches and internal memos to London – he quickly fell foul of the gap between rhetoric and reality within the ‘War on Terror’. Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, and at the time hosted several US military facilities, was deemed to be a key ally in the global struggle against Islamist terrorism. In March 2003, Murray was summoned to London, and told that his concerns about the use of torture by the Uzbek authorities were understood; the Foreign Secretary had even lost sleep over the right course of action – but that the torture-tainted intelligence being received from Uzbekistan was nonetheless ‘useful’. Murray took a different view:

“this material is useless”, he wrote, in a confidential memo in July 2004, “we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful. It is designed to give the message the Uzbeks want the West to hear. It exaggerates the role, size, organisation and activity of the IMU [an Uzbek armed group] and its links with Al Qaida. The aim is to convince the West that the Uzbeks are a vital cog against a common foe, that they should keep the assistance, especially military assistance, coming, and that they should mute the international criticism on human rights and economic reform.”

By this time, Murray had already – in August 2003 – been slapped with 18 disciplinary charges, suspended, and pressured to resign quietly. When he refused, the Foreign Office was forced to back down – all 18 charges were subsequently dropped. 

In the same July 2004 memo, Murray also raised pointed questions about the competence of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), following the fiasco over WMD in Iraq:

“Sixteen months ago it was difficult to argue with SIS in the area of intelligence assessment. But post Butler [the Butler report looked into the intelligence failures leading up to the 2003 Iraq war) we know, not only that they can get it wrong on even the most vital and high profile issues, but that they have a particular yen for highly coloured material which exaggerates the threat. That is precisely what the Uzbeks give them… At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family’s links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services.”

Craig Murray put his job on the line – and ultimately sacrificed a lucrative Foreign Office career – because he believed that the policies he was being asked to support were fundamentally wrong-headed. Yet his struggles against UK Foreign Policy doublethink didn’t end in 2004. In the 2005 General Election he made a quixotic stand as an independent candidate against the same UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who had tried to silence him. An accompanying BBC documentary, which followed his campaign’s progress, billed this “The Ambassador’s Last Stand” – but there was more to come. When, in December 2005, the UK Foreign Office sought to block the inclusion of Murray’s damning memos in his book, “Murder in Samarkand“, he arranged for them to be published instead on hundreds of internet blogs across the world. The Foreign Office’s attempt at covering its tracks had only pushed the issues further into the public domain. 

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I look at the wider issues raised by the Craig Murray case, and at the delusions around the use of torture within the ‘war on terror’.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 5, 2008 at 8:05 am

British MPs sceptical of UK government denials over Iraq torture

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The Observer reports that a committee of MPs has cast doubt on UK government denials over the use of torture in Iraq. Evidence heard during the trial of soldiers implicated in the killing of an Iraqi prisoner, Baha Musa, suggested that the troops had been ordered to use coercive interrogation techniques, including hooding and ‘stress positions’. Now the Parliamentary select committee on human rights has accused the Ministry of Defence of blocking their efforts to trace responsibility further up the command chain. The committee also suggests that public assurances given by former armed forces minister Adam Ingram, and Lieutenant General Robin Brims, have been contradicted by evidence that UK troops had been using banned interrogation techniques following legal advice from their superiors in Iraq.  

Wide-ranging freedom of information laws in the United States have helped to ensure intense public scrutiny of the conduct of American forces in Iraq. A series of legal-rulings compelling the release of previously classified government documents have helped to illuminate the role played by senior figures in helping to make situations such as Abu Ghraib possible.  In Don’t Get Fooled Again I was able to draw on many of these primary sources in seeking to understand Abu Ghraib and other related cases.

But here in the UK, the picture is still far more murky. So far, our senior officials have largely escaped any implication that they ordered or condoned the use of torture or other abusive treatment in Iraq. Cases such as the killing of Baha Musa have largely been seen – as was Abu Ghraib at one time – as the work of ‘bad apples’ rather than the result of systematic, officially-sanctioned, abuses. Britons have so far been able to console themselves over the various fiascos relating to Iraq with the assurance that at least ‘our boys’ would never engage in the kind of systematic depravity pursued by US forces at Abu Ghraib. But in the absence, here in Britain, of the kind of judicially-enforced transparency made possible in the US by robust freedom of information laws, it’s tempting to wonder whether the UK chain of command may simply have been in a better position to cover its tracks.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 27, 2008 at 10:45 am

US Major General who led Abu Ghraib investigation accuses authorities of “war crimes”

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In 2004, it was Major General Antonio Taguba’s damning report – then still a classified document – that triggered the prosecution of a number of the soldiers who had committed abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq. Now, in the preface to a detailed study by Physicians for Human Rights, Taguba states that “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look into the deceptions and delusions around the use of torture in Iraq, at the evidence which suggests that Abu Ghraib was anything but an isolated case, and at the striking parallels between the Abu Ghraib abuses, and the notorious “Stanford Prison Experiment”.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 24, 2008 at 11:08 am