Gibson rendition report is half the picture – will we get the rest?

A Guantanamo Bay detainee. US Department of Defense

Nearly three and a half years ago, and to much fanfare, David Cameron launched a judge-led inquiry into British involvement in disappearance, rendition and torture. This week, he has finally published a redacted version of the interim report from the Gibson Inquiry, as it became known, which has been sitting on his desk for 18 months.

This report amply demonstrates just how much remains unknown about UK complicity in the global rendition and torture system, established as a central part of the “war on terror” after 9/11, and the continuing need for a robust, independent and open investigation in the role of British intelligence services, with the principle of minimising the amount of “closed” (secret) sessions needing to be kept paramount.

However, although the unanswered questions and lines of investigation “not yet taken” are central to the interim report, it does far more than just pose questions. Although the report says that it is careful not to draw any conclusions, the detail contained within its 115 pages in fact confirms at the broadest level much that human rights investigators, academics and investigative journalists have uncovered about UK complicity in rendition and torture, in spite of years of official denial.

To recap, after 9/11 the US government led the way in constructing a global system of detention outside the law, illegal prisoner transfers (rendition), and torture. Overall, this system has involved the detention and torture, in secret, of hundreds of detainees in scores of detention sites around the world. The United Kingdom has been the foremost counter-terrorism ally of the United States over the past 12 years and allegations of deep British involvement in this global system have mounted as time has gone on.

With its interim report, the Gibson Inquiry clearly confirms that the documentary evidence exists – even before the cross-examination of witnesses was allowed to take place – that the UK has been an active player, and a complicit partner, in rendition and detainee mistreatment since 9/11. Overall, it shows that the standard government line – that “the UK does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purposes” – simply does not stand up to sustained scrutiny.

UK involvement in rendition …

British intelligence was clearly involved in the rendition of detainees to countries where torture is endemic. The report notes that documents seen by the panel indicate “a number of instances where … there was some level of UK approval for, or assistance in, a rendition operation by a third country, or the feeding-in of questions afterwards”, where these renditions were to countries “where there were objective grounds for concern about the receiving country’s standards of detainee treatment”.

Such grounds for concern were so significant in some cases, according to the report, that, had UK courts been ruling on the deportation of extremists to the same countries, they would have forbidden this in order to uphold the legal ban on torture.

In some cases, British intelligence took the lead role in a rendition operation for the purposes of interrogation under torture. Two Libyan dissidents, Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi were rendered along with their families to Libya in March 2004, as the US and UK sought rapprochement with Gaddafi. Documents found in Tripoli after Gaddafi was toppled clearly show that MI6 took the lead role in locating Belhadj and arranging for the rendition of him and his pregnant wife onboard a CIA aircraft.

Others show lists of questions and intelligence material to supply to the Libyan interrogators, who Belhadj says tortured him during interrogations. One such document, a memo from Mark Allen, the director of counterterrorism at MI6 makes the British role in his rendition and interrogation very clear:

Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week. Abu ‘Abd Allah’s information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us. Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from Abu ‘Abd Allah through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on Abu ‘Abd Allah was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.

… and ‘questionable treatment’

The Inquiry has also confirmed that British intelligence officials were present at times where detainees were under control of foreign security forces, and played an active role in the interrogation of suspects as they were being subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation and beatings. This “ongoing engagement with a liaison partner” by the British included interviewing the detainees, feeding in questions, receiving the intelligence gained, and in some cases supporting “certain questionable treatment techniques”.

This finding comes as no surprise to those who have followed the issue: the High Court in 2008 found that MI5 knew that detainee Binyam Mohamed was being intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation, shackling and threats of being “disappeared” and that this treatment was causing significant mental stress and suffering, before travelling to Pakistan to interview him. Mohamed has testified that British officers themselves threatened him with disappearance and torture and that, while he was in the same facility, he was hung from the ceiling for a week, with his feet barely touching the floor, before being rendered to Morocco where he was held and tortured for 18 months.

Questions also remain about the use of UK airspace and territory for the movement of detainees by the CIA. After years of denying that renditions took place through UK territory, then then foreign secretary, David Miliband, admitted in February 2008 that two rendition flights had landed in Diego Garcia in 2002, each with a detainee on board. It is still unclear what the UK Government knew about these flights; the FCO still refuses to confirm or deny that it holds information regarding the detainees on board, where they were sent, and how they were treated.

The Rendition Project reported in May 2013 that more than 1,600 flights by CIA aircraft linked to the renditions programme landed or took off from the UK, and in some of these cases it is undeniable that they were on the way to and from rendition operations.

Again, the Government has consistently refused to look into the matter, claiming that it knew nothing of what was going on and that it would be impractical to check every flight entering the country. However, given that these flights were taking place at the same time as British intelligence was working hand in glove with the CIA in specific rendition and interrogation operations – as documented by the interim report – it seems inconceivable that they were not aware, at the time that they passed through the UK, of the involvement of at least some of these aircraft in rendition and torture.

Now, questions must be answered

Much remains unanswered. It seems that the Gibson Inquiry was set to delve into these matters with some force, and there is deep disappointment from many that its work has been shelved. The passing of the investigative baton to the Intelligence and Security Committee is highly unlikely to lead to the robust, independent and open inquiry that is so needed. Its prior inquiry into rendition completed in 2007, almost fully exonerated the intelligence services and failed to see past the smoke and mirrors that were presented to them.

Many have criticised the ISC’s lack of independence, weak investigative powers, and past failings when holding the services to account, whether on the issue of rendition or mass surveillance. The signs are not good that we, the public, will ever know what truly went on with British involvement in the global system of rendition and torture. That would be a huge shame, both for questions of justice for past crimes, and for ensuring that it did not happen again.