Ministers deny ‘policy to collude in torture’

Author: By Joe Churcher and Gavin Cordon, PA

Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who are
responsible for MI6 and MI5, said tough judgments had to be made in order to
protect the UK from attack.

And they strongly denied allegations of a “policy to collude in, solicit, or
directly participate in abuses of prisoners” or to cover up abuses.

Their defence, in a joint article for the Sunday Telegraph, came as another
influential parliamentary committee raised serious concerns about the issue.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said it was “imperative” that the
Government fulfilled its legal obligations to act positively to prevent
torture and to investigate allegations.

It expressed particular concern about Britain’s relationship with Pakistan’s
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, calling for an explicit assurance
that UK officials would not be “uncritical of, or complicit in, abuses of
human rights”.

There have been a string of allegations about the involvement of UK
intelligence agencies in the questioning of terrorist suspects abroad,
including supplying questions for interrogators to ask.

Scotland Yard is conducting a criminal investigation into claims that MI5 was
complicit in the abuse of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who alleges
that he was tortured while being held at sites in Pakistan, Morocco and
Afghanistan.

Last week, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) accused
ministers of failing fully to answer questions on the issue and said an
independent inquiry was the only way to restore public confidence in the
intelligence and security agencies.

In the article, the ministers stressed that the UK “firmly opposes” torture
and mistreatment but said there was not enough understanding of the tough
judgments faced.

“There is no truth in suggestions that the security and intelligence services
operate without control or oversight. There is no truth in the more serious
suggestion that it is our policy to collude in, solicit, or directly
participate in abuses of prisoners. Nor is it true that alleged wrongdoing
is covered up,” they wrote.

“These issues are of fundamental importance to our security and to our values.
We need a public debate, but an informed one.”

They said it was not possible to be certain about the behaviour of other
governments “whose obligations may differ from our own”.

“Yet intelligence from overseas is critical to our success in stopping
terrorism. All the most serious plots and attacks in the UK in this decade
have had significant links abroad.

“Whether passing information which might lead to suspects being detained,
passing questions to be put to detainees, or directly interviewing them, our
agencies are required to seek to minimise, and where possible avoid, the
risk of mistreatment.

“Enormous effort goes into assessing the risks in each case. Operations have
been halted where the risk of mistreatment was too high.

“But it is not possible to eradicate all risk. Judgments need to be made.”

They also defended the Government’s accountability on the issue, which was
branded “woefully deficient” by the JCHR which called for the Intelligence
and Security Committee (ISC), which is appointed by the Prime Minister to
oversee the work of MI5 and MI6 and reports direct to Downing Street, to be
reconstituted as a Parliamentary committee reporting to MPs.

The ministers said the ISC was an independent body that did not hesitate to
criticise where necessary, adding: “The sensitive nature of the agencies’
work requires a different set of checks and balances from other parts of
government.”

“We take all allegations of wrong-doing very seriously. The law is the
ultimate safeguard and is available to those who feel their rights have been
abused, as shown by current cases where individuals have brought claims
against the Government,” they added.

In its report, the FAC also accused the Foreign Office of “pulling its
punches” over the “massive scale” of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia,
another key ally in the fight against terrorism.

It expressed concern that allegations continued to be made about the use of
the giant American airbase on the British territory of Diego Garcia in the
Indian Ocean for US “rendition” flights carrying terrorist suspects, urging
ministers to press the US administration to carry out a comprehensive check
of its records to establish whether there were any further cases beyond the
two from 2002 which it admitted last year.

And it called on the Government to do more to address the concerns surrounding
the treatment of detainees who had been captured by British forces in Iraq
and Afghanistan and then handed on to the local authorities or the US.

Responding to the report, Amnesty International UK campaigns director Tim
Hancock said: “This report is yet another voice in a growing chorus
demanding greater transparency over the UK’s involvement in ‘war on terror’
human rights abuses.

“It adds yet more weight to our call for a full, independent inquiry.”

And James Welch, legal director of campaign group Liberty, said: “Calls for an
independent judicial inquiry into the dirtiest part of Britain’s ‘war on
terror’ are becoming almost deafening.

“Is the Government listening? Will it appoint such an inquiry before it is
eventually ordered by the courts?”

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