Thursday, June 09, 2016 

Mark Allen and Jack Straw: guilty as hell.

In another of those wonderful moments of serendipity we get every so often, today has seen both the publication of the Loughinsland inquiry and the CPS decision on whether to bring charges against the former MI6 head of counter-terrorism.  For years various officials and politicians in Northern Ireland and the rUK have attacked the idea there had been collusion between the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries, despite previous inquiries finding precisely that, such as the de Silva report into the murder of Pat Finucane.  Far too much emphasis was placed on regrettable incidents like Bloody Sunday, and not enough on the outrages committed by the Republican terrorist organisations, helmed by figures now at the very top of the devolved government.   Where was the over-arching inquiry into their crimes, aided they often allege by the Irish government and the Garda?

That the IRA was riddled with informers and MI5 agents, some of whom commissioned attacks in order not to blow their cover is not as often brought up.  Now we know thanks to the Maguire report of further such examples involving loyalist groups, only with the RUC rather than the intelligence agencies covering their tracks or turning a blind eye.  Up to 70 murders and attempted murders were carried out with weapons smuggled in under the noses of the police, with the owner of the farm where the weapons were being hidden tipped off two hours before the RUC came looking.  While other officers were trying their hardest to track down those responsible for the Loughinisland massacre, someone informed members of the gang they were about to be arrested.  One of the suspects was in any case an informer, who carried on being so for a number of years after.

At least the motives in Northern Ireland were good ones though, right?  The object was to save lives; who's to say those agents and informers didn't ensure more people weren't killed than would have been otherwise?

The same cannot be said of our dealings with Colonel Gaddafi in the aftermath of his giving up his WMDs, a decision that hasn't exactly stood the test of time for either side, Gaddafi having ended up being sodomised with a knife and all.  Delivering over a couple of Islamist opposition figures to his jailers was the least we could do, wrote Mark Allen to the Libyan head of intelligence, Moussa Koussa.

A hint of the likely outcome to the police inquiry into the MI6 aided rendition of Abdul Hakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi was provided by the flying visit of said Moussa Koussa to the UK prior to the fall of Gaddafi.  After a quick chat with the rozzers about Lockerbie, Koussa was allowed to piddle off to Qatar.  You might have expected the intelligence chief of a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record would have been of especial interest, not least because of Yvonne Fletcher and the supplying of the IRA with large amounts of Semtex, but strangely not.

Likewise, Sir Mark Allen is not so much as named by CPS, instead referred to anonymously as the "suspect", despite how the entire rest of the media is naming him.  To be fair to the CPS, their full statement in fact gives them great credit.  While it starts off with Sue Hemming saying there was insufficient evidence to bring charges, it goes on to almost deliberately contradict itself.  While the actual rendition was not carried out by MI6, instead our mates in the CIA doing the kidnapping and strapping down of Belhadj's wife, there was contact between them and the suspect, as there also was with the Libyans.  While there also wasn't complete written authorisation by a minister, there was some discussion.  In other words, Allen and Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, are guilty as hell.  Only the law as it stands falls short of being able to guarantee a conviction.

Not that the explanatory part of the statement will make a scrap of difference.  Insufficient evidence is the part that will be repeated over and over.  Nothing to see here.  That the Gibson inquiry was in effect scrapped so the police could investigate the allegations against Straw and Allen was something of a happy coincidence for the coalition government, soon having got cold feet, despite originally promising a full independent inquiry into alleged collusion in torture and rendition.  Instead the Intelligence and Security Committee is once again left to try and get the truth out of MI6, which even with its new powers and the capable and trustworthy Dominic Grieve as chairman can hardly be depended on.

Still, this is without doubt the very closest we have yet come to any sort of government body admitting the intelligence services in the aftermath of 9/11 were perfectly happy to collude in torture.  It didn't matter that neither Belhadj or al-Saadi were of the slightest threat to the West, members of a group with links to al-Qaida or not; the lure of getting access for British companies to Libya's oil was enough of a justification.  Allen of course went on to become a special adviser to BP, even if the subsequent deal with Libya was rather soured by the uprising against Gaddafi, at which point we once again switched sides.

We're funny like that.  One minute we're handing over people to be tortured, the next we're deciding the responsibility to protect the ordinary citizens of Libya had to be invoked.  It's almost as though we make it up as we go along, with no moral code whatsoever, even while those with overall responsibility for such acts demand further such interventions.  Ah well.

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Thursday, October 02, 2014 

Moazzam Begg and the incompetence of MI5.

The release of former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, 5 days before he was due to stand trial on terrorism charges, once again raises questions about the relationship between the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the intelligence agencies.  It also makes clear how political pressure is being put on banks to close the accounts of charities which have links, however tenuous, with those active on the ground in Syria.

Worth setting out from the start is Begg and Cage, the group he represents, were not completely honest about what he was doing in Syria.  In a lengthy piece for Cage prior to his arrest but after his passport had been confiscated, he maintained his visits were mainly aimed at gathering further evidence of US/UK complicity in torture, "accumulating testimony and information for a report on the situation of the current prisoners as well as the accounts of those who had been detained and tortured in the past."  There's no reason to doubt Begg on this count.  He did also however, as he was going to argue in his defence had the case proceeded to trial, train young men in how to "defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime", something apparently made clear by the titles of "electronic documents" he was also charged with being in possession of.

Begg's defence was set to argue that just as the UK government was providing non-lethal aid to the rebels, he was doing much the same only in a personal capacity.  Whether this would have won over a jury is open to question: it certainly didn't save Mashudur Choudhury, who was found guilty of preparing acts of terrorism in Syria despite his failure to so much as join up with a rebel group once out there.

Quite where the involvement of MI5 began is similarly indefinable.  Begg writes of a meeting with an officer where both sides had lawyers present, at the end of which it was made clear MI5 did not object to his travelling to Syria and would not stand in his way.  It seems difficult to believe the investigation by West Midlands police into Begg didn't involve collaboration with MI5 in some way, even if they didn't instigate it.  If as seems likely it was this meeting with Begg that belatedly led to his being released, why was it not communicated to the police and CPS sooner?  Why also did it then take a further two months before the case was dropped after the intelligence was communicated?

Predictably, this has seen claims made that Begg's release is more about behind the scenes efforts to free Alan Henning than it is the undermining of the evidence against Begg.  Quite how dropping the charges against Begg will make Islamic State more amenable isn't explained; far more likely is the Times' story has been planted to spare MI5's blushes.

As for whether Cage itself will receive an apology now that its outreach director has been freed remains to be seen.  Barclays closed Cage's bank account earlier in the year due to its association with Begg, as did the Co-op Bank.  At the heart of the issue remains the government's contradictory approach to Syria, still not cleared up by the joining of the attacks on Islamic State: it supports the rebels, but considers anyone who travels to the country a potential terrorist.  Little wonder the police and CPS themselves appear to be confused.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 

The conspiracy theories return.

Only on Monday were we mentioning in passing Sir Peter Gibson's truncated inquiry into alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition by our glorious security services and government. His final report sat waiting to be published for almost 18 months as arguments over which secret documents could and couldn't be included in full raged, regardless of how meek and mild Gibson's actual conclusions were. One of the key claims from all involved was this time the security services had cooperated fully, making the "vast majority" of requested documents available, except for those that couldn't be released without US permission.

Strange then that as Craig Murray posted on Monday, a source in the Foreign Office had told him our own government was lobbying the Americans over the similarly delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report into the rendition and wider torture programme operated by the CIA. Their worry was, even redacted, the release of the report's executive summary could damage the case currently being put before the courts blocking the attempt by Abdul Hakim Belhaj to seek compensation over his rendition. Despite the judge accepting the evidence for Belhaj's rendition via Hong Kong was all but established, to go any further would risk damage to the "national interest", i.e., the UK's relationship with the US.

Now via al-Jazeera America (and Yorkshire Ranter) comes another reason why both this government and the one previous would like the report's summary to remain sitting on President Obama's desk for a while yet. According to two US officials who have had access to parts of the 6,000 page report, it confirms for the first time that despite repeated denials from ministers back then and the Gibson inquiry not receiving any documents (PDF) that said otherwise, Diego Garcia was indeed used not only as a stopover point for rendition flights as was admitted in 2008, but also as a "black site".  This was with the full permission of the government, despite the likes of Jack Straw and David Miliband time after time telling parliament the exact opposite was the case.

If confirmed, it not only means ministers lied to both houses of parliament to protect the United States and its torture programme, it's also the first time the mistreatment of detainees has been found to have occurred on UK territory.  As all the reports up till now have also cleared the government of complicity in actual extraordinary rendition, having not considered the cases of Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi while downgrading the transfers of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna to Guantanamo as "renditions to detention", it would also for the first time leave the government with no wiggle room on that charge, potentially opening the way for more compensation claims, or even prosecution for those who gave the Americans permission to use their base on Diego Garcia as they saw fit.

Once again then we can be glad the eventual follow-up to the Gibson inquiry has been handed to the fearlessly independent Intelligence and Security Committee, the same one which let the intelligence chiefs know the questions they were going to be asked beforehand (although, it must be noted, they probably would have known anyway such are GCHQ's abilities).  It must also be a relief to Baroness Amos and David Miliband that they have since moved on from the Lords and the Commons respectively, as both insisted the government knew nothing about the use of Diego Garcia to host detainees, although there's a certain irony in how both are now involved in humanitarian work, Amoss at the UN and Miliband at International Rescue.  As for Jack Straw, he's set to leave parliament at the next election, probably before any subsequent inquiry reaches its conclusion.  While the chances of Inspector Knacker coming to call are unlikely, to judge by their past involvement in similar cases, it hopefully won't come too late to further tarnish what deserves to be regarded as one of the most ignominious political careers of recent times.  It might not be the equivalent of having your penis slashed with a scalpel, being deprived of sleep for over 11 days, forced into a pet carrier for two weeks or shackled to the ceiling of a cell by your wrists, but it's something.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013 

Rendition: one step closer to, something.

A day after saying I was right I can swiftly redress the balance by making clear I was also wrong.  There is actually very little in the Report of the Detainee Inquiry aka the Gibson report (PDF) that's been redacted.  Indeed, only one brief section of the report has been, although the main redaction consists of an entire paragraph (page 48 onwards, 5.23) which reading between the lines was an account of what MI5 and SIS officers saw on being allowed to interview detainees at Bagram airbase on the 9th of January 2002.  In what seems to be the first instance of an officer reporting back first hand the potential mistreatment of detainees, SIS Head Office responded by telegram on the 11th of January with advice that while it was "important that you do not engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment", "the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this".  In fact, international law explicitly states the opposite.  Another entire paragraph is then redacted, and this time it's impossible to know what the closed report said.

The main reason why more hasn't been redacted is immediately apparent on reading the rest of what is by inquiry standards, even one which was cancelled early, a fairly short document.  For anyone who presumed the report would deal in detail with individual cases of alleged complicity in rendition, they're likely be left extremely underwhelmed.  What the report amounts to is little more than a reprise of the narrative which those who've followed the rendition scandal from the outset will already be familiar with. This is hardly surprising when it draws heavily on the two previous reports by the Intelligence and Security Committee, 2005's detainee report and 2007's one on rendition. Both were wholly inadequate, thanks to how the ISC didn't then have the power to demand documents from the agencies, and the usual failure of the spooks to tell the truth. Gibson even fully accepts the ISC's defintion of what is and isn't an extraordinary rendition, so once again the agencies are cleared of personal involvement in rendition, despite the massive role played by MI5 in the transfer to Guantanamo of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna.

Despite also having almost full access to the documents requested from MI5 and SIS (the "vast majority" were released, although some, especially those requiring American consent have not been, which is interesting to note considering the NSA's horrendous failure to keep GCHQ documentation safe), new revelations are extremely few and far between. We already knew for instance that while expressing concern about conditions at Guantanamo in public when it opened, Jack Straw was agreeing the transfer of British citizens to the detention camp behind closed doors.  One new detail is that Straw, apparently looking for an alternative, suggested to David Blunkett the then being drafted Extradition Bill could try and restrict the precedent set by R vs Mullen, where the unlawful return of Nicholas Mullen from Zimbabwe had resulted in his conviction of conspiracy to cause explosions being quashed (page 35).  Blunkett reported back 5 months later saying "the obstacles to this suggestion are simply too formidable".

The key issue that remains is the one considered in chapter 6 of the report (page 73 onwards).  Despite what the then heads of MI5 and SIS said to the ISC previously, it's apparent there was more than enough evidence collected by the agencies themselves, not least from the reports of officers back to their heads, to suggest mistreatment was fairly widespread at Bagram and elsewhere.  Gibson says these "reports ... were of variable quality and viability", but when we now know that after the very first visit by British officers to Bagram they were reporting back their concerns only to be told they didn't have to worry their little heads about things like the Geneva convention, it's difficult not to conclude that some within the services knew full well what was happening.  Indeed, it seems as though as early as 2002 MI5 was conducting internal reviews in an attempt to collate the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo.  Despite this, the report reveals, no centralised record was subsequently kept of either allegations of mistreatment or first hand accounts from officers themselves.

As to whether ministers were informed of these concerns, something that has previously been unclear, the report does little to clear things up.  Tony Blair annotated a briefing note on Guantanamo saying although he had been sceptical about claims of torture, it had to be "quickly establish[ed] that it isn't happening".  Jack Straw was also made aware of the report from Bagram, and like Blair, annotated it; he also went on to intervene in both 2003 and 2004 with the Americans with concerns on the treatment and conditions British citizens were subject to.  It wasn't until after the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light however that Straw specifically asked SIS to provide him with information on their experiences in interviewing those held in Afghanistan.  As much as it seems the security services didn't go out of their way to keep ministers informed, the ministers themselves hardly seemed to have been too bothered either.

Which, again, isn't wholly surprising when we know Straw was involved at around the same time in the transfer of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi back to Libya.  Straw for his part responded in the Commons, once again denying that he was in "any way complicit in the unlawful rendition or detention of individuals by the United States or any other state".  The problem for Straw is that MI6 says they only acted in accordance with ministerial authority, meaning one of the two has to be wrong.

Aren't you glad then it'll be the ISC investigating once again, rather than a fusty old judge with a legion of lawyers getting fat off the taxpayer doing the interrogating?  Straw certainly must be, as no doubt are the intelligence services themselves.  Ken Clarke, who must have pulled the short straw and so gave today's Commons statement despite no longer being the justice minister, certainly didn't give anything approaching an adequate explanation as to why a judge-led inquiry can't take place now, with consideration of the alleged Libyan renditions delayed until the the court case and police investigation have concluded, whereas it seems the ISC can do both at the same time.  If nothing else, today's report makes clear that questions from parliamentarians, especially those who have previously held the same positions as those accused, are simply not going to be of the same standard as from those appointed to helm an independent inquiry, not least when the ISC is already conducting at least two other substantial investigations at the same time.

Then there's the very issue we started with.  This report has been with the prime minister for 18 months.  We can't know the battles that went on between Gibson and the Cabinet Office over the redactions, only in the end they've turned out to be relatively minor.  That it's taken such an incredible amount of time to be published does though suggest any report eventually issued by the ISC is even more likely to be affected.  I cannot possibly see how redacting that first paragraph dealing with events more than 10 years ago could affect national security now, and yet in the end Gibson gave in and allowed it to be removed.  When you also consider they've chosen to publish it on what has turned out to be a busy news day at the time of year when few are much interested in parliament, the potential for the hiding of embarrassment, let alone potentially criminal acts, remains immense.  It has at long last been stated fairly uneqovically, if carefully, that we chose to involve ourselves in rendition and the mistreatment of detainees during the initial period of the "war on terror".  It's how those involved are now held to account that matters, and the signs are that just as the CIA was allowed to get away with far worse, our own politicians and spies will be able to plead unique circumstances and get away with only stains on their character.  Those who were tortured will merely have to bear the very real scars for the rest of their lives.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013 

The futility of being right.

There are times when despite every fibre of your being telling you it makes you look an arse, you really just want to say I told you so/I was right/you people are damn fools.  In fact, it doesn't just make you look an arse, it means you almost certainly are an arse.  We hear complaints all that time that no one managed to predict the recession or the Arab spring, except of course for the tiny number some have deemed to be our latter day equivalent of Cassandras.  It doesn't matter it's more than likely those same people completely lucked out and prior to getting something right had been wrong, wrong, and thrice wrong, we tend to downplay such things in our search for those who seem to know something the rest of us dunderheads don't.

To labour the point even further, it's incredibly easy to pose a political soothsayer, not least when by far the best policy is to expect the worst and go from there.  Don't predict riots though, as even if you turn out to be right, you really do look a tool.  Chances are your hit rate if you're careful will be quite high, although considering others despite these rules have failed miserably, such as the sadly departed Mystic Mogg, or Mark "Osama bin Laden is dead" Steyn, perhaps there's more to it than there really seems.

Right, have I delayed the inevitable quite enough?  Those with longer memories will recall that back in the mists of time an inquiry into our "alleged" collusion in extraordinary rendition, helmed by a certain Sir Peter Gibson, was cancelled after further "allegations" against MI6 and Jack Straw came to light.  These "allegations" were such that almost exactly a year ago Sami al-Saadi received a £2m settlement without the government admitting any liability.  In other words, yes, we were perfectly happy to send those associated with an Islamic group opposed to Gaddafi (but which also had links to al-Qaida) back to the colonel's torture chambers, so long as it meant a few of our finest FTSE 100 companies got access to the country's copious natural resources.  A few years later, and a different government decided we would join forces with these terrorists to get rid of the man we felt we could do business with (although, if we're to believe David Shayler, we had already paid the LIFG to make an attempt on Gaddafi a few years previous to that).  Changing geopolitics, eh?

12 months on, and finally we've learned there is indeed to be a follow-on inquiry.  Only, as was predictable, rather than the judge-led independent inquiry hoped for by human rights groups and those others compensated by the governments it is instead to be carried out by, err, the Intelligence and Security Committee.  Yep, in what seems to be a deliberate joke on those of us who have been mocking the ISC for years now, the same committee that produced the ridiculous whitewash on rendition in the first place is to have a second try.  I'd like to say this boggles the mind, except as the general response to the Snowden revelations has made clear, we've come a long way from the days when the coalition was making a lot of noise about "freedom" bills and not introducing ID cards.

It does though raise the question of how such a committee can possibly even begin to hold either ministers or the security services to account.  The government seems to be asking Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretary, to sit in judgement of Jack Straw, former foreign secretary.  Also alongside Rifkind will be Hazel Blears, a minister at the same time as Straw was failing to stop the Iraq war and signing memorandums authorising renditions.  Will she be recusing herself?  One suspects not.  It also won't be able to get straight on with the work as the government continues to try to get Abdel Hakim Belhaj's case thrown out, meaning it's possible the inquiry won't have started until after the next election. Apparently enough then the government isn't even pretending to be interested in keeping its word any longer, and those hopes the likes of Liberty had for something better to turn up have very much not come to pass.  As even a goon like me thought was the most likely result.

We will however be getting Gibson's interim report, which will be somewhat limited as the inquiry never heard any evidence.  Seeing as it's also sat around for the best part of 18 months, it's bound to be redacted to the verge of complete pointlessness, and in the best Whitehall tradition, to blame precisely no one and also reach err, no conclusions whatsoever.  Fantastic.  It's also being published on the last parliamentary day before Christmas, no doubt alongside dozens of other unpleasant documents and statistics the government doesn't want anyone to know about.  Isn't it great being right?


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Monday, June 10, 2013 

Through the prism.

Whenever the security services are criticised, we always get the same boilerplate response.  They do amazing work keeping us safe; they have to get it right every time while our enemies only have to be lucky once; we can't possibly be told of everything they're doing to protect us so they often prevent attacks we never even hear about it; and so on.  To which the obvious answer is: well, no shit.  The point surely is that with great power comes great responsibility.  As with the police or any other state service, they have to be held to account, even if everything can't be disclosed for very good reasons.

For all the claims from politicians that our intelligence agencies are some of the most open in the world, they simply don't have regulators worthy of the name.  The Intelligence and Security Committee has yet to prove it is up to the task, even with its boosted powers, such were the lies it was told about our involvement in rendition, and indeed the whitewash which the committee itself applied.  Nor are the commissioners any better, while the previous reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, was practically a creature of the security servicesHis replacement David Anderson does at least seem slightly more worthy of the description independent.  It also doesn't inspire confidence that the latest chairman of the ISC, Malcolm Rifkind, also chairs LEK, which provides consultancy to arms manufacturers.

When William Hague then says the law abiding have nothing to fear from GCHQ potentially having access to almost every piece of information an individual has shared with the majority of the internet giants via the US National Security Agency's Prism programme, you ought to know that the opposite is the case.  The old trope about those who have nothing to hide having nothing to be concerned about is so hoary that it shouldn't really need to be answered, but it ought to be even more ridiculous in a sad age of "revenge porn" and when so many share their most intimate secrets online.  Almost every single person has something in their past that they wouldn't want to become common knowledge, or which they would only ever share with their closest friends and family.  I most certainly have.

Whether or not it is the case that GHCQ have been using Prism as a way of getting around our more stringent laws on data interception isn't clear.  Certainly, that there were 197 such requests last year makes apparent that it's useful for something, although whether or not they gained access to information they otherwise hadn't been able to get hold of with the authorisation of a secretary of state or court order we can't know.  The inference from Hague in the Commons today was that these requests are also authorised either by him or another minister, hence why he and Cameron have both said that everything GCHQ does takes place under a legal framework.

He did at least recognise there might well need to be a change in the law, taking the point from David Blunkett of all people that while ministerial approval might still be required, it is not legally required.  This rather misses the point that we shouldn't be using what another intelligence service is accessing without oversight when it goes beyond what our own laws currently stipulate is permissible.  The proposed communications bill, which the joint committee said went too far, only proposes that the information that a message or action has been sent (metadata) be kept by ISPs, not the actual content itself.  Prism, by contrast, sucks in everything, and it seems with a certain amount of connivance from the likes of Facebook and Google, despite their claims to the contrary.

You don't have to be Alex Jones to be worried that while this data collection might currently be used to (in the main) protect us, it wouldn't take much for it to be used for mass surveillance, and indeed probably already is in any number of authoritarian states.  It should also concern us that contrary to the assurances from politicians, the tide is in fact towards ensuring the security services are further beyond proper scrutiny.  The justice and security bill that ensures there won't be a repeat of the "seven paragraphs" case has become law, the Gibson inquiry's report (what there is of it) is still yet to be published, while the Chilcot inquiry also seems to be stuck in limbo.  The communications data bill will eventually get passed in some form or another, precisely because the securocrats have too much influence and power for it not to be.  Just as we have an independent commission to monitor the police, so we should have a genuinely independent one for the intelligence agencies.  What we'll continue to have instead is the stonewalling and obfuscation that Hague in the main delivered to parliament today, along with the usual toadying from the majority on all sides.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013 

Unacceptable in the 80s.

Seeing as we've spent pretty much the last ten days going over old wounds, it seems a shame to break the pattern now.  Let's strike a slightly different note though: of all the myriad of things that Thatcher and Reagan inflicted on their respective countries, one thing neither did was authorise or condone the use of torture.  While it's certainly true that Reagan for one had no qualms about participating in the most dirty, even treasonous (as would be alleged by the opposite side if it was the other way round; they almost got Clinton impeached for having his dick sucked, for comparison's sake) underhand dealings, as evidenced by his administration's funding of the Contras by the secret selling of arms to Iran, 25 years ago today the US signed the UN Convention Against Torture.  On sending it to the Senate a month later, Reagan commented that the treaty "clearly express[es] United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today".

Quarter of a century on, the record of Thatcher and Reagan's heirs is starting to be laid bare.  We already knew much about the extraordinary rendition programme and how "enhanced interrogation techniques" were authorised in the aftermath of 9/11, but the Task Force on Detainee Treatment report, commissioned by the Constitution Project, is the best effort yet to draw together how the policy progressed and was instituted, starting with the opening of Guantanamo and following on to its practice in Iraq.  Their key finding is that "it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture".  No fudging, no moving of the goal posts; torture, whether directly authorised or not, was used.  Nor do they shy away from the argument of some that such harsh techniques had results.  They conclude that there is "substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable".  Views are mixed as to whether the film Zero Dark Thirty actively suggests that the testimony given by one tortured detainee helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden (the report says that it does; I haven't seen it so can't judge), but it most certainly is not the "first draft of history" as claimed by Kathryn Bigelow.

The Constitution Project set up its own panel to investigate the treatment of detainees after the Obama administration decided not to take any further action or open any investigation into what went on during the first phase of the "war on terror".  Back here in Blighty, where there is nothing to suggest that torture was ever sanctioned by a minister but plenty of evidence that collusion with the US in the rendition programme most certainly was authorised, the Gibson inquiry was meant to provide answers.  Instead it was unceremoniously abandoned, ostensibly on the grounds that the police needed to investigate the involvement of the security services and ministers in the rendition to Libya of two former members of the LIFG, which had links to al-Qaida, although one suspects the boycott by human rights groups at the limited scope of the inquiry also had something to do with it.

Nonetheless, Gibson and his team wrote up a report on the evidence they had sifted through and handed it over to the government.  That was nine months ago, and there is as yet no indication as to when it might be published.  Seen alongside the fight over the closed material procedures section of the justice and security act, designed to stop the courts from ever releasing material such as that which confirmed the security services knew about the torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed and did nothing to stop it, it more than implies that the coalition, having been lobbied extensively by both MI5 and SIS, has now decided upon a similar course to that of the US.

We could undoubtedly give too much credit to both Reagan and Thatcher over their stance, although Simon Jenkins was right yesterday to highlight how the latter's response to nearly being killed by the IRA was to carry on almost as if nothing had happened.  Both cuddled up to regimes that most certainly did and continue to torture their own citizens, while at the funeral yesterday were such noted humanitarians as Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney (arch defender of waterboarding) and Benjamin Netanyahu. There can be little doubt however as to which administrations will be judged most harshly on their foreign policies by history.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013 

Keeping secrets secret.

There's a scene in the film Liar Liar (this will almost certainly be the only time I quote from a Jim Carrey film other than the Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind approvingly) in which Carrey's character, compelled to tell the truth after a wish made by his son, screams down the phone at a long-term client once again seeking his legal advice that he should "STOP BREAKING THE LAW, ASSHOLE".

 A similar scene ought to have been repeated a long time ago when it came to the intelligence agencies and their active collusion both with the US rendition programme, and indeed as we now know, MI6's own escapades in delivering opponents of Gaddafi back into his torture system, I mean prison system.  Of course, this could never have happened as, we also now know, it was Jack Straw who was signing the paperwork that authorised the rendition in the first place.

The misfortune of the coalition is that they've been the ones left to deal with the mess created by years of litigation from former detainees who believe, rather justifiably considering what's come to light as well as from their own experiences that both MI5 and SIS were up to their neck in rendition.  The government, desperate to ensure that hundreds of thousands of pages of documents detailing what was going on at the time the former Guantanamo detainees were either being transferred or in the odd case, actively handed over to the Americans remain secret, has in the aftermath of the "seven paragraphs" and a ruling by the Court of Appeal that allegations of wrongdoing must be heard in public, instead resorted to large cash settlements, accepting no culpability for what happened to the men.  The latest, a massive payout to Sami al-Saadi, one of the two men sent back to Gaddafi's holiday camps, was for £2.2 million.

An obvious solution to this unpleasantness would be, you would have thought, to not get involved in illegal conspiracies where "terrorist suspects" are flown to various black sites around the world, or as the rendition programme has since ceased, to not actively conspire with authoritarian states over the detention of opposition figures, regardless of the business interests involved.  This doesn't mean not working with states that we regard as having poor records on human rights whatsoever, when such relationships are vital to protecting our own citizens and interests, rather it means just not helping them with the things that our own courts would reject.

But no.  No, what we need instead to placate both foreign intelligence agencies and to protect our sources on the ground is closed material procedures in civil cases, similar to the current Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, where claimants (or defendants, in SIAC's case) are represented by special advocates who can only give a "gist" of the evidence against their clients to them.  Passed yesterday in parliament, the system will allow justice to be done, the claimants either vindicated or the intelligence agencies cleared of wrongdoing, the taxpayer no longer giving money to suspected terrorists to fund future missions, as Ken Clarke implied at one point, and our allies who have threatened to stop sharing intelligence due to a supposed breach of the "control" principle will be satisfied.

As Henry Porter (as an aside, it's worth noting the lack of outrage from the vast majority of those who condemned ZaNuLiarBore for their constant attacks on civil liberties this time round) and Richard Norton-Taylor have pointed out, these arguments might carry more weight if we didn't know all too well this part of the Justice and Security Bill only exists because of lobbying from the intelligence agencies.  The fact is that the courts were getting far too close to the truth: that despite all of the claims to the contrary, the security services are still involved in practices that are either incompatible with basic human rights or which rather than making us more safe, do the exact opposite.  While the Guantanamo detainees all decided to settle, as has al-Saadi since, it's more than possible that someone would emerge who had suffered either at their hands or indirectly who wouldn't, and would take the case all the way.  The seven paragraphs were enough to get ministers hyperventilating; some of the material contained in the documentation of the war on terror could be enough to alter the perception of the security services for a generation.

The row over the control principle was always secondary to this.  The Americans may well have been angered by the release of the seven paragraphs, but they were only ever released by our courts because the American courts had already let even more damning evidence on the treatment of Binyam Mohamed out into the public domain.  In any case, as David Davis pointed out during the debate, the Americans are more than willing to let intelligence out when it shows them in a good light, and to say their own levels of security were previously wanting considering Bradley Manning and Wikileaks is an understatement.  While it's certainly true that SIAC does not always find in the government's favour, as demonstrated in how Abu Qatada has been granted bail and in Ekaterina Zatuliveter's successful appeal against deportation as a spy, unless there are absolutely exceptional reasons justice must be open, and seen to be open.  Closed material procedures were designed to protect the blushes of the security services, and the amendments to the legislation haven't done anything to change this.

No surprise then that Jack Straw himself stood up in the Commons yesterday and argued against his own party.  Not for him a quiet life while the allegations against him continue to be investigated, and as the civil case from Mr Belhaj remains unresolved (Straw didn't take the opportunity to respond to Belhaj's offer of a settlement for a token sum and an apology), this was a case which required his expertise.  Never mind that it's that exact expertise which has seemingly led to the need for this bill, for as Straw reminded us, it's not scaremongering to say that to carry on in the position we are in is the equivalent of abandoning the intelligence agencies, and with it their ability to protect us.  Just as Straw once said it was a conspiracy theory there was any such thing as a rendition programme, so it would be deeply unwise to regard him as discredited now.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012 

The least they could do.

Right on cue, the news that the government has settled the case brought by Sami al-Saadi over the rendition of his entire family from Hong Kong to Libya only serves to underline how little has changed since the days of collusion with terrorist gangs in Northern Ireland.  Desperate to bring Libya in from the cold so that UK businesses could fully exploit the country's potential, both Tony Blair and Jack Straw went the extra mile in wooing one of the most vicious tyrants of our age, authorising Mark Allen to deal directly with Moussa Koussa in the rendition of both al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj.  Al-Saadi was bundled onto a plane in Hong Kong just three days after Blair's trip to Libya to shake hands with Gaddafi, while Belhaj had made a similarly forced trip two weeks prior to Blair's arrival.  Allen went so far as to write that the rendition of Belhaj was "the least we could do for you and Libya".

As with the settlements reached with the men who ended up in Guantanamo, the government has accepted no liability for what happened to al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir.  Both Munthir and Belhaj were senior leaders in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a faction which had close ties to al-Qaida, prior to its dissolution.  This association didn't bother us too much when Libya was a sworn enemy, however: according to David Shayler (prior, it must be said, to his espousal of 9/11 conspiracy theories) MI6 funded a failed assassination attempt on Gaddafi by the LIFG.  This accepting of no liability is despite it being the most clear-cut case of collusion with an authoritarian state, thanks to the documents discovered by Human Rights Watch, and our knowing full well that any promises sought that the men would not be mistreated were worthless.

It certainly brings into perspective the anger expressed by Blair at how he couldn't deport anyone designated as a "terrorist suspect" to wherever the hell he felt like; no doubt aware of how swiftly those opposed to a new dictatorial ally had been delivered into their grasp, it must have smarted that the likes of Abu Qatada and others kept winning their legal battles.  It also remains to be seen whether charges will be brought against anyone involved in these two cases: the Gibson inquiry into rendition was abandoned as a consequence, ostensibly for the reason that the investigation by the Met would have further delayed the hearing of evidence.  I'm certainly not holding my breath on that score. 

Considering then that Blair has been making such a killing through his work for Kazakhstan, and Straw will presumably be receiving royalties from his memoir, perhaps the pair would like to contribute towards the £2.2m cost to the taxpayer of their handiwork.  It's the least they could do for us, and the country's worldwide reputation for human rights, surely?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012 

From Finucane to Mohamed, the story remains the same.

The report by Sir Desmond de Silva into the murder of Patrick Finucane in 1989 by the Ulster Defence Association is a truly remarkable document.  Rather than follow the pattern of whitewashes and missed opportunities we've come to associate with past inquiries, it does something quite different and quite extraordinary.  

Helped by previous inquiries by Peter Cory and the now Lord Stevens, it collates a massive amount of evidence, all of which points towards something a lot of people would define as a conspiracy, and then reaches the flat conclusion that it was collusion, and nothing more.  Unlike with Hutton and Leveson, where the media was blamed and the politicians involved all but exonerated, de Silva assigns responsibility only to organisations which no longer exist and individuals who are dead.  As for those who were at least somewhat aware of the RUC's interest in the Finucane, they couldn't possibly have anticipated what would happen.  The way the establishment conducts itself changes, but the result seems to stay the same.

As David Cameron acknowledged in the Commons, de Silva's report is shocking in the picture it builds up of a security state that was a law unto itself.  He finds that none of the agencies running agents in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s had an adequate framework for handling them, with the result being that in some instances they made up the rules as they went along.  The Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch had no workable guidelines at all; the Army's Force Research Unit had ones which were contradictory; and MI5 had no effective external guidance as to how far their agents could go in breaking the law in order to keep their cover and continue passing on intelligence.  Despite officers from all of these organisations repeatedly raising their concerns with the cabinet ministers of the day, it wasn't even recognised as necessary until 1993, and statutory legislation wasn't passed until the RIPA act of 2000.

At the heart of the collusion which led to Finucane's murder was Brian Nelson, an FRU agent who managed to become the intelligence head of the UDA thanks to the backing of the British state.  He was recruited despite his role in the kidnap and torture of a partially sighted Catholic man, for which he served three years in prison, and then recruited again after leaving the force in 1985, having spent the previous year involved in a plot where a Sinn Fein councillor was targeted and attacked.  Nelson's supposed remit was to target Provisional IRA activists, individuals who would take time to track down, thereby giving the authorities the necessary time to intervene to save lives.  

In practice, as de Silva finds, only very rarely were these counter-measures initiated.  Nelson's role was in effect to provide the UDA with the identities of those the British state had decided were expendable.  When Gerry Adams entered the sights of the UDA in 1987, MI5 was clear in how damaging a repeat could be, a senior officer sending a telegram suggesting that it could be seen as conspiracy to murder if Nelson's role became known.

Despite this, MI5 only decided against running Nelson themselves, having become aware of how he wanted the UDA to attack "justifiable" targets.  They did nothing to intervene with the FRU, nor offer guidance to them on how Nelson should be run.  This turning of a blind eye was carried over to the RUC, who claimed that the FRU didn't pass on the intelligence Nelson supplied them with, only for de Silva's conclude this was a lie; the FRU nevertheless didn't concern themselves with how the RUC wasn't doing anything to protect those Nelson said the UDA were to target.  Indeed, de Silva's own research leads him to believe the RUC were influenced to a certain extent as to whether they acted on intelligence by their links, real or fictional, to paramilitaries, as supported by the failure to act on threats against another lawyer, Oliver Kelly.

Also worthy of note is that MI5 included Finucane in the "propaganda initiatives" they conducted in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.  That Finucane was a lawyer, and that no credible evidence has ever been presented to suggest he was a member of the IRA (he married a Protestant and also represented loyalists, regardless of his brothers' links to the IRA) was seemingly irrelevant; he was best known as acting for republicans, and had been Bobby Sands' lawyer.  De Silva performs somersaults to clear MI5 of any responsibility, saying there was no intention on their part to incite loyalists to attack Finucane.  It just so happened that two previous threats had been made against him, neither of which he was informed of.  All these initiatives were meant to do was "unnerve" republican paramilitaries, nothing more.  They just should have foreseen the effect they might have had.

So too should Douglas Hogg, the then under secretary at the Home Office (now best known for being the MP who claimed expenses for the cleaning of his moat).  Hogg made a highly provocative comment in the Commons just a month before Finucane's murder, stating there were a number of solicitors in Northern Ireland who were "unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA".  He based this on a briefing he had received from the RUC, who told him some lawyers were "effectively in the pockets of terrorists".  Four days before his comments he received profiles from the RUC of Finucane and Oliver Kelly, neither of which de Silva finds even began to prove they were in the pockets of the IRA.  De Silva nonetheless exonerates Hogg, as he can find no basis for any claim this was active encouragement to loyalists to go after solicitors known for representing republicans.  He does say however that his comments, "albeit unwittingly", could have increased the vulnerability of solicitors in NI at the time.  This can't help but remind of Lord Hutton's finding that the Joint Intelligence Committee may have been "subconsciously influenced" by Tony Blair and others into producing the strongest possible dossier on Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

De Silva does find that, on the balance of probabilities, Finucane's name was suggested as a target to the UDA by an RUC officer.  He does not however find that Nelson informed his handlers of his role in handing over a photograph of Finucane to his killers.  Nonetheless, he concludes that since the FRU was well aware of how Nelson withheld information from them if he believed the target was a "justifiable" one, this means the army must bear " a degree of responsibility" for Finucane's murder.  All but unbelievably, the man who was eventually convicted of Finucane's murder, Kenneth Barrett, was recruited by the RUC as an agent after he had confessed on tape to the killing, the case against him dropped.

Nor did the attempts to pervert the course of justice at the very highest levels of the state stop there.  The then attorney general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was lobbied by the Northern Ireland secretary, the defence secretary and other senior government officials to drop any prosecution against Nelson, according to de Silva due to the highly inaccurate and factually misleading briefings they were given by the Ministry of Defence and the RUC.  He doesn't however accept any ministers at the time had foreknowledge of Finucane's murder, nor that they "encouraged or directed any form of collusive activity with the UDA".

Little wonder then that Finucane's family have reacted with incredulity and anger to the report.  As it has been so many times before, no single person in a position of authority has been held responsible.  Even if we accept de Silva's conclusion that there was no "overarching State conspiracy" to murder Finucane on the evidence he was able to collate, what he does find is that agents of the state were involved in abuses up to and including murder.  No individuals other than Nelson or Barrett though have any responsibility for this.  Can it really be true that ministers weren't aware of the policies being pursued by the police, the army and MI5, or if they were, that they condoned them even if they decided they didn't want to know?  As the Guardian argues, the only way to be certain is for these questions to be asked of those in power at the time, at an open public inquiry.

The same applies to the more recent cases of apparent collusion in rendition, where there is similar evidence of the security services acting in concert with foreign intelligence agencies to transfer "terrorist suspects" to countries where they faced torture.  The axed Gibson inquiry would have at least provided us with a starting point; at the moment there's no guarantee we'll get the promised inquiry during this parliament.  At the same time, the government is still looking to push through its secret courts bill, specifically designed to stop the security services being embarrassed again by their failure to do anything about a British resident being horrifically tortured.  When after three inquiries into the death of one man we're still little nearer to the truth, what chance uncovering the reality behind our role in a worldwide conspiracy?

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012 

Yet another post on Abu Qatada.

Well, who could have predicted thatAbu Qatada winning his latest appeal against deportation to Jordan?  This has never happened before!  Oh, except it hasTwice, in fact.  And when even a keyboard monkey like me with no real legal knowledge whatsoever could pick holes in Theresa May's trumping of how this time Qatada really was as good as on a plane, it suggests both she and her predecessors have been receiving incredibly bad advice for quite some time.

The judgment by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (PDF) is essentially a rehash of the ECHR's decision earlier in the year, that Qatada doesn't personally face the prospect of mistreatment or torture, but he does face the prospect of a trial where the main evidence against him is confessions from men who almost certainly were tortured.  Regardless of the change to the Jordanian constitution to explicitly prohibit the use of evidence obtained via torture, Mr Justice Mitting and his team reached the conclusion that, based on expert evidence from Jordanians who gave written and in person testimony, the statements that incriminate Qatada may well be used against him, and that the burden of proof is likely to fall on the witnesses to prove they were tortured, rather than for the prosecution to prove that they weren't.  As the torture happened over a decade ago and the Jordanian courts previously rejected the notion that torture took place, the likelihood of them being able to do so, even in front of three civilian court judges, is dubious in the extreme.  Barring a further change to the Jordanian code of criminal procedure or a definitive ruling from one of two courts on the ambiguities in the code, Qatada is staying here.

Unless that is May manages to convince the Court of Appeal that SIAC is being unreasonable in its demands of the Jordanians, something that seems highly unlikely considering SIAC has come to effectively the same conclusion as the ECHR did.  In the meantime, ol' bird nest face is free for 8 hours a day, if your definition of free is being tagged, followed by security officers the moment you step out of your front door and being denied access to pretty much everything that makes life pleasurable.

If all this seems a bit much for someone whose motivations have often seemed opaque, then SIAC also obtained new information on the nature of the evidence against Qatada.  To say some of it is thin is an understatement: all that links Qatada to the "Reform and Challenge" case is that one of the defendants says he suggested the targets and then congratulated him afterwards; in addition, three of the defendants had copies of a book by Qatada.

The evidence against him for the Millennium plot isn't much thicker: Qatada gave one of the defendants money, although not ostensibly towards the plot, gifting him 800 Jordanian dinars with which he bought a computer, while the defendant admitted discussing the "issue of jihad" with Qatada, although not specifically about any plot.  Another defendant claimed Qatada had given a further $5,000 to the same man, while the money he had been promised to marry the first defendant's sister never arrived.  Otherwise, the evidence again amounts to possession of books by Qatada, and the discovery of messages between the two men.  SIAC additionally comments on this that "[T]he record of the evidence produced at the trial does not clearly support the prosecutor’s case", although it's presumed that in the case file there will be statements from investigators that will.

All is likely to depend on whether the Jordanians are prepared to move further, or whether a case comes before either court that irons out the disagreement between the experts consulted by the commission.  SIAC accepted that the Jordanians had moved significantly from their initial position, and also noted their awareness of how this was a potential opportunity for them to show they were capable of trying a man notorious internationally with scrupulous fairness.  If SIAC was making its decision on that basis alone, as indeed had the ECHR, Qatada would be long gone.

In a different world, this entire case might be seen as showing the best of the British state.  Despite the contempt often shown towards the Human Rights Act and the ECHR by politicians from both main parties, successive governments have abided by the decisions made in line with it, refusing to countenance ignoring the rule of law in this specific case, and have gone so far as to push Jordan towards making genuine judicial reforms.  Pushing any authoritarian state in the direction of respecting basic human rights is something to be proud of, regardless of the circumstances.

Unfortunately, we're stuck with this world, and it's one where judges are traduced by tabloid newspapers for doing their job.  By all means criticise the judiciary if they get basic decisions wrong, or apply the wrong tests when they sentence someone, but not when they've delivered a judgment as in-depth and cogently argued as Mitting has.  

The real responsibility for this 7-year-long slog lies with the last government.  The decision to simply get rid of Qatada rather than attempt to prosecute him has never been explained adequately: we don't know whether there simply isn't enough evidence against him, whether the evidence is mainly phone intercepts, whether his involvement with MI5 goes too deep, whether it was made impossible by the rendering of Bisher al-Rawi who reported on Qatada to MI5, or whether deportation was felt to be the easiest option.  Where this government has failed has been to fall into the same trap as the previous one, of boasting to the media that the deportation is all but done and dusted, only to find it still hasn't got its legal arguments in order.

One suspects that Qatada will eventually get sent to Jordan, if only down to how successive governments have backed themselves into a corner.  Should further changes to the Jordanian law not be forthcoming, then Qatada's bail restrictions will have to be either loosened or dropped entirely.  The only other option is to impose a TPIM, and they can only last for two years.  Even at this late stage there's still time for a potential prosecution to be looked at, however embarrassing that might be either for the previous government or the security services.  It can't be any worse than the prospect of someone built up to be Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe mooching free around London.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012 

Abu Qatata, finally?

Credit where credit is due then: the government could have taken the advice of the head bangers on the Tory backbenchers (and head banger is the only way you can possibly describe Peter Bone, whose surname seems to be lacking something) or followed the wonderful example set (allegedly) by the French and Italians, and just stuck your friend and mine Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan (the country, not the model, although they could perhaps be the ultimate odd couple in a sitcom: she's had more surgery than Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers combined; he's never had a shave).

Instead, if we're to believe Theresa May, our need to deport an unwanted extremist has struck a blow for human rights in general in the country. In practice, this doesn't look quite so clear cut. The European Court of Human Rights ruled Qatada couldn't be deported in the main because the evidence of his co-defendants, which would make up the majority of the case against him, was obtained as a result of torture. May states that as they have since been pardoned, and that whatever they say will no effect upon those pardons, "we can therefore have confidence that they would give truthful testimony". This is dubious in the extreme. Their pardons might not be affected, but this hardly means that an authoritarian state can't put pressure on them in other ways.

May also seems to contradict herself. She said in her statement that Qatada will be able to challenge the original statements made against him, then states "[I]ndeed, one of the more significant recent developments is the change to the Jordanian constitution last autumn that includes an explicit ban on the use of torture evidence". Presumably if there's an explicit ban on the use of torture evidence then Qatada won't need to challenge the original statements as they won't be admissible? And in any case, there are plenty of vile regimes that in their constitutions have explicit restrictions on certain practices that they nonetheless indulge in. As nit-picking as this might look, these are exactly the sort of doubts that should Qatada appeal again to the ECHR will have to be addressed and answered.

On the whole though it's difficult not to applaud. As there seems to be no chance whatsoever that the government will reconsider and instead decide now that Qatada should be prosecuted here, especially after it's gone to all this effort to persuade the Jordanians to in turn persuade the ECHR that they can be trusted to try him fairly, this is undoubtedly the second best option. It not only shows, as pointed out previously by Maajid Nawaz, that we will not succumb to the very thing that the government's counter-extremism strategy defines as being unacceptable, the undermining of the rule of law, it also indicates that when really pushed we can work with countries such as Jordan to help them improve their systems of government without then in turn selling them weapons as a reward. It does mean that it's doubtful we'll ever learn exactly how intertwined Qatada was with the security services, and there's plenty of reasons why we shouldn't believe that MI5 only had contact with him three or so times prior to 9/11, but if it means we are rid of one of the main reasons for why the tabloids so loathe the ECHR and in turn the Human Rights Act, although there are plenty of others, then it'll at least somewhat make up for it.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012 

Lying and the passing of time.

It's a wonderful thing, the passage of time. Yes, we all of course edge ever closer to the grave with each second that goes by, but look on the bright side: it also means your memory of unpleasant past events in your life gradually fades.

This onset of forgetfulness comes sooner to some than others. Take Tony Blair for instance. He claims to have "no recollection" of the rendition of Abdul Hakim Belhaj to Libya, something that took place a mere 2 weeks before he jetted in to meet Colonel Gaddafi and in effect declare the country open for business. Almost certainly part of the mutual process showing that both sides would get something out of the new relationship, you would have thought the prime minister should have known that his foreign intelligence service was conspiring with the CIA to provide a dictatorship with one of its most high profile opponents.

Then there's Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary. You might recall (he probably doesn't) that when first faced with the exposure of the US rendition programme he was absolutely certain that the British government had no case to answer. What was more, unless you believed the lovely Condoleezza Rice was lying, there was no programme whatsoever. It was akin to believing in conspiracy theories. 7 years later, and while Straw has changed his tune somewhat, he's still vehement that he knows nothing about this specific case. Rather, this is an example of MI6 simply not telling him what they were up to, as the security services are apparently wont to do on occasion. As he said, "[N]o foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time."

It certainly wouldn't be the first time that the security services have told lies to the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee, who most certainly weren't informed at any point of MI6's role in the rendition. Would they also though mislead the Foreign Office, and so close to the point at which our relationship with Libya was about to change so utterly? Either MI6 was completely out of control, authorising its own missions without informing ministers, delivering innocent people into the hands of torturers, or Jack Straw signed off on the entire thing. Which is more likely?

Happily, it's unlikely that should this or any future government think about doing anything similar that it'll be exposed as easily. I said at the time that it was a little early to welcome the cancelling of the Gibson inquiry when it was far from clear that we would ever get a replacement, let alone a more independent one, and with the continuing controversy over the secret courts plan which would stop them ever releasing the equivalent of the seven paragraphs again it just underlines that this government is not more enlightened, it's simply more subtle in slamming the door shut. Hands up anyone who thinks that there'll be charges once the Met have finished investigating the two Libyan renditions, regardless of the offering of £1m to Belhaj. Exactly.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012 

Abu Qatada: same shit, different month.

One of the problems of doing much the same thing creatively over a long period is that you can fall into the trap of repeating yourself to the point where it not only turns off those who previously paid something approaching attention, it also leaves you thoroughly dispirited with how you can't seem to get out of the same old routine. While this is obviously not a problem for Liam Gallagher, and with slight modification seeming repetition can in fact launch an institution (see Private Eye, The Fall, George A. Romero), it's not quite the same with politics and commenting on it. I'd go so far to say that it's only in politics that quite so many otherwise dead subjects can be resurrected, whether because they never go away, or due to how they can be reanimated and gone over yet again, the same arguments rehashed and then ignored just as they were the last time.

So it is with Abu Qatada, the hirsute Islamic fanatic everyone loves to hate. It seems only last month that we were discussing why he should or shouldn't be deported for the umpteenth time, because it, err, was. It would be nice to think that the topic has been done to death: the government of whichever hue convinced of its righteousness in trying to deport him back to Jordan, with those few on the other side quietly pointing out that we could have avoided all this palaver had we attempted to put him on trial here in the first place, rather than sending him back into the welcoming arms of the authoritarian state he fled from. We did after all grant him asylum back in the care-free 90s, unconcerned as we were then of the phantom of exploding Muslims. Why, even those happy spooks in residence at Thames House believed they had him in their pocket, and that he wouldn't do anything to harm the state that had given him shelter.

Reacting though with weary resignation to Qatada's imminent release on "bail", if you can call a curfew of 22 hours bail, simply wouldn't suffice. We must instead go through the same cycle of outrage as last time, whether it's the Sun's take on the matter, with "evil Qatada sniggering at our humiliation and weakness", or the home secretary saying it "simply isn't acceptable" that he can't be deported, despite our diligence in attempting to ensure he won't be mistreated. It doesn't seem to matter that the danger from Qatada, such as it is, isn't that he will personally launch an attack: it's rather than he's provided theological guidance and motivation to jihadists in the past, and given the opportunity possibly will again. This makes the threat he poses under a 22 hour curfew, accompanied by surveillance, a tag and a ban on anyone visiting him who doesn't receive Home Office approval almost negligible. If anything he probably poses more of one where he currently is in HMP Long Lartin, where he can at least mix with the other detainees in the special immigration unit being held in similar circumstances to his (PDF), hardly improving the chances of any of the men having a change of heart over their extremist views.

It also doesn't matter that as Qatada's lawyer Gareth Pierce pointed out, he has been under both a control order and similar bail conditions previously, and on neither occasion was it found that he had breached those terms. He was taken back into custody the last time purely on the grounds of "national security reasons" which could not be disclosed, having embarrassed the government by shopping in broad daylight for kitchen roll and Diet Coke. Even if it turns out that the government can't reach agreement with Jordan over evidence potentially derived from torture being used against him, and the most likely outcome on that score seems to be Jordan dropping proceedings against him altogether, it hardly means he's going to be free to do whatever the hell he feels like: a TPIM, the coalition's replacement for control orders is only very slightly less rigorous.

There is a very obvious double standard at work here: regardless of what British citizens are accused of, we would refuse to send them to a country to face trial where the death penalty would definitively be sought should they be found guilty. Likewise, the outcry would be massive should the evidence they face be potentially tainted by or even be wholly the product of torture, as the ECHR has ruled in Qatada's case. You only have to look at the example of the Natwest Three, where a high profile and incredibly misleading PR campaign was launched on their behalf to see the difference when it's "our criminals" that are being sought. Despite all the scaremongering, they were back here within four years of their deportation. By comparison, and without being convicted of any crime here, Qatada was described today in parliament by the home secretary, however obliquely, as a terrorist.

As sympathetic as I am to the well articulated points of Michael White, who reasonably sets out why we have discharged our responsibilities to Qatada and indeed other non-citizens who attempt to avoid deportation to potential justice in a similar fashion, it remains the case that the whole venture has been doomed from the start. It's been a well established point of law for a long time now that you cannot deport someone back to a country where they will face the threat of mistreatment or a trial where the evidence is likely to be based on mistreatment; the House of Lords surprisingly overturned Qatada's successful court of appeal bid on that score, so it was always likely that his subsequent appeal to the European Court would succeed. Richard Norton-Taylor suggests that this whole course was supposedly chosen on the grounds that it would be easier than taking him through the courts, even though evidence of his extremist preaching, potentially amounting to inciting racial hatred, murder or terrorism is available.

Distasteful as it is that we should have dedicated such efforts and expense in protecting the rights of a man who would presumably like to see the imposition of Sharia law, this is exactly what makes us democracies. To steal wholesale from a comment posted by GuyStevenson on Eric Metcalfe's piece at the Graun, quoting
Aharon Barak, former head of the Supreme Court of Israel:

This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual's liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.

It might save some time to remember this when we do have to put Qatada under that less strict regime. Except, of course, we won't.

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