Rendition and torture — interview on RT

Here’s my recent inter­view on RT’s excel­lent and incis­ive new UK polit­ics pro­gramme, “Going Under­ground”.  In it I dis­cuss rendi­tion, tor­ture, spy over­sight and much more:

Going Under­ground Ep 22 1 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Judicial rendition — the UK-US extradition treaty is a farce

Some­times I sit here read­ing the news —  on sub­jects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police invest­ig­a­tion into UK spy com­pli­city in tor­ture, where the police decided not to pro­sec­ute — and feel that I should com­ment.  But really, what would be the point?  Of course the police would not find enough con­crete evid­ence, of course no indi­vidu­al spies would be held to account, des­pite the fact that the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment has already paid massive set­tle­ments to the vic­tims.

BelhadjNow there are reports that the police will be invest­ig­at­ing MI6 involve­ment in the extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture of two Liby­ans.  The case appears bang to rights, with doc­u­ment­ary evid­ence that high-rank­ing MI6 officers and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters were involved in and approved the oper­a­tion.  Yet I’m will­ing to bet that the plods at Scot­land Yard will still not be able to find the requis­ite evid­ence to pro­sec­ute any­body. 

The inev­it­able (and prob­ably wished-for out­come on the part of the author­it­ies) is that people become so weary and cyn­ic­al about the lack of justice that they stop fight­ing for it.  And they can tem­por­ar­ily suc­ceed, when we suc­cumb to cyn­ic­al burnout.

But the case repor­ted in today’s Daily Mail, that of a young Brit­ish stu­dent facing extra­di­tion to the US des­pite hav­ing broken no laws in the UK, suc­ceeded in rous­ing my wrath. 

Richard_ODwyerThe hap­less 23-year old Richard O’Dwyer faces 10 years in a max­im­um secur­ity Amer­ic­an pris­on.  His crime, accord­ing to the US, is that he set up a UK-based web­site that provided links to oth­er inter­na­tion­al web­sites that allegedly hos­ted copy­right mater­i­al.

This case is so troub­ling on so many levels it is dif­fi­cult to know where to begin.  There are issues around the crack­down of US cor­por­ate copy­right law, issues around the inequal­ity of the uni­lat­er­al Extra­di­tion Act 2003, and his­tor­ic ques­tions of US hypo­crisy about extra­di­tion.

So let’s start with the unsup­por­ted alleg­a­tions against poor Richard O’Dwyer.  He is a stu­dent who built a web­site that col­lated a list of sites in oth­er coun­tries that host films, books and music for free down­load.  O’Dwyer did not him­self down­load any copy­righted mater­i­al, and the web­sites he linked to were appar­ently with­in jur­is­dic­tions where such down­loads are not illeg­al.  Provid­ing a sign­post to oth­er leg­al inter­na­tion­al sites is mani­festly not a crime in the UK and he has nev­er been charged.

How­ever, over the last couple of dec­ades the US enter­tain­ment lobby has been fight­ing a vicious rear­guard action against copy­right infringe­ment, start­ing with the music, then the film, and now the pub­lish­ing industry.  The lob­by­ists have proved vic­tori­ous and the invi­di­ous SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Con­gress.  All well and good you might think — it’s one of those mad US issues.  But oh no, these laws have glob­al reach.  What might be leg­al with­in the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legis­la­tion.

Gary_McKinnon2Which is where the Extra­di­tion Act 2003 becomes par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing.  This law means that any UK cit­izen can be deman­ded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evid­ence.  As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hack­er Gary McKin­non, it mat­ters not if the “crime” were com­mit­ted on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon’s case was not pro­sec­uted by the UK author­it­ies in 2002.  If it had been, he would have received a max­im­um sen­tence of 6 months’ com­munity ser­vice: if extra­dited he is facing up to 70 years in a US max­im­um secur­ity pris­on).

The UK gov­ern­ment has tried to spin the egre­gious Liby­an cases as “judi­cial rendi­tion” rather than “extraordin­ary kid­nap­ping” or whatever it’s sup­posed to be.  So I think it would be accur­ate to call Gary McKinnon’s case “judi­cial rendi­tion” too, rather than bor­ing old extra­di­tion.

Richard O’Dwyer appar­ently didn’t com­mit any­thing that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extra­di­tion to the US and a 10 year stretch.  The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judi­cial rendi­tion. 

As I have men­tioned before, digit­al rights act­iv­ist Cory Doc­torow summed it up best: “you can’t make a sys­tem that pre­vents spy­ing by secret police and allows spy­ing by media giants”.  These cor­por­ate inter­net laws are a Tro­jan horse that will threaten our basic civil liber­ties across the board.

So now to my third point.  The hypo­crisy around the Amer­ic­an stance on extra­di­tion with the UK is breath­tak­ing.   The UK has been dis­patch­ing its own cit­izens off at an alarm­ing rate to the “tender” mer­cies of the US judi­cial sys­tem since 2004, with no prima facie evid­ence required.  In fact, the leg­al proof required to get a UK cit­izen extra­dited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extra­dited from one US state to anoth­er. 

The US, on the oth­er hand, delayed rat­i­fy­ing the law until 2006, and the bur­den of proof required to extra­dite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbal­anced not only in concept but also in prac­tice.  And this des­pite the fact that the law was seen as cru­cial to facil­it­ate the trans­fer of highly dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the end­less “war on ter­ror”.

Why has this happened?  One can but spec­u­late about the power of the Irish lobby in the US gov­ern­ment, as Sir Men­zies Camp­bell did dur­ing a par­lia­ment­ary debate about the Act in 2006.   How­ever, it is well known that the US was remark­ably coy about extra­dit­ing IRA sus­pects back to the UK to stand tri­al dur­ing the 30-year “Troubles” in North­ern Ire­land.  We even have well-known apo­lo­gists such as Con­gress­man Peter King, the Chair­man of the Home­land Secur­ity Com­mit­tee attempt­ing to demon­ise organ­isa­tions like Wikileaks as ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tions, while at the same being a life-long sup­port­er of Sinn Féin, the polit­ic­al wing of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA.

UK_poodleThe double stand­ards are breath-tak­ing.  The US dic­tates an extra­di­tion treaty with the UK to stop ter­ror­ism, but then uses this law to tar­get those who might poten­tially, tan­gen­tially, minutely threaten the profits of the US enter­tain­ment mega-corps; and then it delays rat­i­fy­ing and imple­ment­ing its own law for poten­tially dubi­ous polit­ic­al reas­ons.

And the UK gov­ern­ment yet again rolls over and takes it, while inno­cent stu­dents such as Richard O’Dwyer must pay the price.  As his moth­er is quoted as say­ing: “if they can come for Richard, they can come for any­one”.

RTTV Interview: Libya — the perfect storm

My RTTV inter­view today about Libya, tor­ture, and UK double-deal­ing:


Gareth Peirce talks to Moazzam Begg

An inter­view between Guantanamo detain­ee, Moazzam Begg, and human rights law­yer Gareth Peirce.

I have writ­ten before about the appalling treat­ment of people like Moazzam, who are kid­napped, tor­tured, and held illeg­ally without charge in America’s secret pris­on camps and Gitmo. Here he has the chance to inter­view Gareth about this and the wider implic­a­tions:


Gareth Peirce has worked indefatig­ably over many years to defend vic­tims of mis­car­riages of justice in the UK courts and bey­ond. The roll call of those she has helped, not just leg­ally but also with emo­tion­al sup­port and a gentle and humane approach, includes: the Guild­ford Four, the Birm­ing­ham Six, Samar Alami and Jawed Bot­meh (the Israeli Embassy Two), Dav­id Shayler, the Bel­marsh internees, Judith Ward, the fam­ily of Jean Charles de Menezes, and now the Guantanamo vic­tims.

Gareth is a true hero of our times.

British Spies and Torture

On 30th April, The Guard­i­an news­pa­per repor­ted that yet anoth­er man, picked up in a Brit­ish counter-ter­ror­ism oper­a­tion in Pakistan, has come for­ward claim­ing that he was tor­tured by the Pakistani intel­li­gence agency, the ISI, with the col­lu­sion of Brit­ish spooks

This is part of a grow­ing body of evid­ence indic­at­ing that Brit­ish intel­li­gence officers are con­tinu­ing to flout the law in one of the most hein­ous ways pos­sible, the pro­longed tor­ture of anoth­er human being. Alleg­a­tions have been emer­ging for years that detain­ees of notori­ous camps such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have heard Brit­ish voices either dur­ing the inter­rog­a­tion ses­sions or dir­ect­ing the line of ques­tion­ing. Many of these detain­ees are also the vic­tims of “extraordin­ary rendi­tion”, in itself an extraordin­ar­ily euphemist­ic phrase for the kid­nap­ping and trans­port­a­tion of ter­ror­ist sus­pects to Third World coun­tries where they can be held indef­in­itely and tor­tured with impun­ity.

This is a situ­ation that haunts me. I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, before leav­ing to blow the whistle. Per­haps I worked with some of the people now dir­ectly involved in tor­ture? Per­haps I was even friends with some of them, met them for drinks, had them round for din­ner? How could young, ideal­ist­ic officers, com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing their coun­try by leg­al means, make that per­son­al mor­al jour­ney and par­ti­cip­ate in such bar­bar­ic acts?

These ques­tions ran through my head when, in 2007, I had the hon­our to meet a gentle, spir­itu­al man called Moazzam Begg. He is a Brit­ish cit­izen who went to Pakistan with his fam­ily to help build a school. One night, his door was broken down, and he was hooded, cuffed and bundled out of his home by Amer­ic­ans, in front of his hys­ter­ic­al wife and young chil­dren. That was the last they saw of him for over 3 years. Ini­tially he was tor­tured in the notori­ous Bagram air­base, before end­ing up in Guantanamo, which he said was a relief to reach as the con­di­tions were so much bet­ter. Need­less to say, he was released with out charge, and is now suing MI5 and MI6 for com­pens­a­tion. He has also writ­ten a book about his exper­i­ences and now spends his time help­ing the cam­paign, Cage Pris­on­ers.

Bri­tain was the first state to rat­i­fy the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, which includes Art­icle 3 — no one shall be sub­jec­ted to tor­ture or to inhu­man or degrad­ing treat­ment or pun­ish­ment. It is impossible for a state to derog­ate from this art­icle. So how and why has Bri­tain stooped to the level that it will appar­ently par­ti­cip­ate in such activ­ity? The “apo­ca­lyptic scen­ario” much loved by apo­lo­gists of tor­ture, where a ter­ror­ist has to be broken to reveal the loc­a­tion of the tick­ing bomb, occurs only in fant­ast­ic­al TV dra­mas like “24”, nev­er in real life.

In the 1990s the accep­ted MI5 pos­i­tion was that tor­ture doesn’t work. This was a les­son the UK secur­ity forces had learned the hard way in 1970s North­ern Ire­land. Then, IRA sus­pects had been roun­ded up, interned without tri­al and sub­jec­ted to what the Amer­ic­ans would no doubt nowadays call “enhanced inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques”. But the secur­ity forces got it wrong. The vast major­ity of internees were arres­ted on the basis of the flim­si­est intel­li­gence and had no links what­so­ever with the IRA. Well, at least when they entered pris­on. Intern­ment proved to be the best pos­sible recruit­ing drive for the IRA.

So why has this think­ing changed? I would sug­gest this is part of a core prob­lem for MI5 – the shroud of secrecy with­in which it con­tin­ues to oper­ate and the com­plete lack of account­ab­il­ity and over­sight for the organ­isa­tion. There is no vent­il­a­tion, no con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism, no debate. Once a new doc­trine has been adop­ted by the lead­er­ship, in slav­ish imit­a­tion of US policy, it rap­idly spreads through­out the organ­isa­tion as officers are told to “just fol­low orders”. To do any­thing else is career sui­cide. This leads to a self-per­petu­at­ing olig­archy where illeg­al or uneth­ic­al beha­viour is accep­ted as the norm.

Of course, you may well argue that a spy organ­isa­tion has to oper­ate in secret. Well, yes and no. Of course it needs to pro­tect sens­it­ive oper­a­tion­al tech­niques, ongo­ing oper­a­tions and the iden­tit­ies of agents. How­ever, bey­ond that it should be open to scru­tiny and demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity, just as the police anti-ter­ror­ism branch is. After all, they do vir­tu­ally the same work, so why should they be any less account­able?

The tra­di­tion of UK spies oper­at­ing in abso­lute secrecy is a hangover from the bad old days of the cold war, and is utterly inap­pro­pri­ate to a mod­ern counter-ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tion. Increased open­ness and account­ab­il­ity is not only essen­tial in a mod­ern demo­cracy, it also ensures that the spies can­not con­tin­ue to brush their mis­takes and crimin­al­ity under the car­pet. Bri­tain deserves bet­ter from those charged with pro­tect­ing its nation­al secur­ity.