Her Majesty’s Secret Service?As official denials grow ever more opaque, evidence which points to Britain’s involvement in torture grows ever more transparent. By Torcuil Crichton
A series of allegations and an increasing pattern of reports of British involvement in the trade of “extraordinary rendition” is cornering the government in narrower and narrower denials.
First there were the denials of knowledge that several UK airports were used by extraordinary rendition flights, which the US uses to transport captured suspects to host nations that have long records of torture. This was against a bubbling stream of testimony, from Guantanamo to Morocco, of det ainees rel eased from the torture-by-proxy nations who claim not just the American CIA but also British voices among their interrogators.
Last week, from Athens, came fresh allegations that British agents were directly involved in the kidnapping and interrogation of 28 Pakistani suspects in Greece who were held incommunicado and tortured by their Greek jailers.
An outcry in Greece over the allegations has led to a government inquiry there. A powerful committee of British MPs, albeit one that meets in secret and reports directly to the Prime Minister instead of parliament, is minded to investigate the allegations in the new year. Now a former diplomat, Craig Murray, who was ambassador to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, has added fuel to the fire.
Murray, who was removed from his post as ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2004 after complaining repeatedly about the use of torture in the country, has since campaigned against British complicity in using intelligence obtained by foreign torturers. Apart from the violation of human rights, Murray’s point is the same as all other critics – that information extracted by torture is generally useless.
Murray, isolated and sometimes ridiculed as an eccentric, has been fighting a one-man campaign against the Foreign Office to clear his name. Despite pressure, he has stayed true to his aims, and a planned book on his experiences was submitted to his former employers, the Foreign Office, some time ago for clearance.
On Christmas Eve, Murray received news that he would have to remove from the book all references to two particularly damning British government documents which appear to indicate that the UK knowingly received information from Uzbekistan extracted through torture.
Murray’s response has been to release the documents to numerous websites. In one of the documents, a civil servant, Matthew Kydd, writes that some of the information received through torture has proved useful to the British intelligence services, and another Foreign Office official gives Murray the assurance that his conscientious objections were “respected and understood”.
The most damaging published exchange is a letter from Michael Wood, a senior Foreign Office lawyer, giving his legal opinion that the use of information extracted through torture does not constitute a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.
“This minute from Michael Wood is perhaps the most important document that has become public about extraordinary renditions,” says Murray. “It is irrefutable evidence of this government’s use of torture material, and that I was attempting to stop it. It is no wonder that the government is trying to suppress this.”
Out of Athens comes a slowly emerging story that the UK cannot suppress. It is a claim that British agents have been complicit in the abductions, beatings and interrogations of suspects snatched from their homes and off the streets of a foreign country.
The abductees, who are now released, live in fear of reprisals against their families in Britain and Pakistan, but some have spoken out. The story of the arrest and abuse of 28 Pakistani-born detainees in connection with the July 7 bombings in London came first in fractured reports, but on Christmas Eve a leading Athens newspaper, Proto Thema, published a full account and identified a UK intelligence officer and 15 Greek agents who were alleged to have taken part.
The paper claimed the snatches in Athens were carried out by Greek officials, at the behest of British intelligence agents trying to link the London bombers with a worldwide network.
The British agent named by the newspaper was said to be the MI6 station chief in Athens. A second, unnamed British agent is also said to have taken part in the interrogation of some suspects, who said they were hooded and held in secret.
One of the detainees claims a gun was forced into his mouth during questioning about his contacts in London.
The detainees, who are migrant workers in Greece, said they were questioned by British investigators about mobile telephone calls linked to the four suicide bombers. They were also questioned about calls made to a suspect in Pakistan whom the British officials apparently wanted to question about the London bombings.
According to Proto Thema, the MI6 agents are said to have orchestrated the torture of the terror suspects in Greece.
The article led to the UK government issuing a DA notice (defence advisory notice) to UK national newspapers to stop them printing the name of the MI6 officer named in Proto Thema. The outdated security measure has already been circumnavigated by the publication of the official’s name on the internet.
Officially, the story has been denied, which sceptics usually take as a yardstick of accuracy. The Foreign Office has refused to confirm or deny whether the person named in the Greek press works at the British Embassy in Athens.
Needless to say, the Foreign Office has denied any involvement in the abduction or torture of Pakistani detainees in Greece, but a growing pattern of abduction and torture gives more than an air of plausibility to the allegation.
The snatched photographs of the cages in Guantanamo Bay and the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are only a glimpse at the surface of a parallel world of counter-terrorism.
Those who have been spirited away into the twilight world and who have come back have recalled British voices and questions relating to Britain being part of their interrogation.
In one case, Benyam Mohammed al-Habashi, a British resident from Ethiopia, was captured in Pakistan. He claims he was visited in prison by two MI6 officers after he had been tortured by Pakistani interrogators who had told him that he was being sent to an undisclosed Arab nation for more torture.
Later, al-Habashi was flown to Mor occo on one of the CIA’s fleet of Gulfstream jets used in renditions. There, he says, he was subjected to appalling abuse, including genital mutilation.
Al-Habashi is now imprisoned at Guanta namo Bay after being forced to confess to plotting a “dirty bomb” attack in the US and being an al-Qaeda “ideas man”. His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, is now to sue Britain on his behalf for breaching the UN convention on torture.
Light of the Pakistani detainees in Athens are preparing to do the same. The Pakistani men have testified to criminal investigators in Greece, claiming they had been held in a country house for varying periods after a journey lasting about 90 minutes.
Two of those detained, Gul Nawaz and Mohammed Munir, told the English-language Athens News weekly, in a story that appeared on December 23, that they were manhandled and beaten.
“Two times a policeman hit me,” Nawaz was quoted as saying. “Then I asked him for some water and he punched me hard in the face. Later he kicked me. They hit me four times.”
Munir claims he was held for six days. He was sure he was being questioned by Britons, though all his interrogators spoke fluent Greek. Munir and Nawaz are exceptional. Most of the men are too frightened to speak .
Those who have been persuaded to talk claim they were taken from their homes late at night, hooded and driven to secret locations, one of which could have been the headquarters of the Greek intelligence agency.
When the incident was first raised in Britain, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw dismissed the reports as “complete nonsense” – as did the Greek public order minister George Voul garakis when the allegations first appeared, a fortnight ago. Now, with the opposition breathing down his neck, the Greek justice minister has ordered an investigation.
Proto Thema says Prime Minister Cos tas Karamanlis sanctioned the British-led operation, and its publisher, Makis Triantafyllopoulos, accuses the Greek and British government of lying.
In Britain, Sir Menzies Campbell, the respected Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, has called for a parliamentary inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee.
The committee – which, unusually, rep orts directly to the Prime Minister and not parliament – operates with as much secrecy as the intelligence agencies themselves. Its nine cross-party members have access to high- powered material and individuals, but they rarely comment on their work. The committee’s reports, which are placed before parliament by the Prime Minister, are often blanked out to preserve security.
It is now reported that members of the committee are exercised enough by the Greek affair to be willing to examine the matter when they return to parliament later this month.
In Athens, events have moved on apace, with some of the detainees giving evidence to an investigating magistrate about their treatment.
It may be that a diplomat at the British mission in Athens has been sacrificed and recalled to protect the identity of other operatives.
A removal such as this could provide the UK government with enough room for manoeuvre for pinhead denials.
Technically, no untruths will be uttered in the official denials, but, as the victims emerge from the twilight world of rendition and interrogation, the truth will out.
01 January 2006