LONDON // One of Britain's most senior judges is to head a government inquiry into allegations that the country's secret services were complicit in the torture of Muslim terrorism suspects. The inquiry will look at the treatment, including "extraordinary rendition", meted out to suspects detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The prime minister, David Cameron, had been expected to announce the probe yesterday but last minute differences over details of the inquiry's terms of reference caused a delay. It will now be announced "imminently", according to Whitehall sources. Although there is no evidence that British agents were physically involved in torture, there are claims that personnel from two branches of the secret service - MI5 and MI6, responsible for homeland and overseas intelligence respectively - helped direct the activities of US and Pakistani interrogators.
The inquiry will centre on the case of 31-year-old Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian resident in the UK who was detained in Pakistan in 2002 and held captive for almost seven years, four of them in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Mohamed, who is now fighting a legal battle in the British courts to have secret papers in his case made public, claims that he was abused in Pakistan and tortured in Morocco, where he was transferred after being held briefly in Afghanistan.
Last year, it was revealed that an MI5 officer who had interviewed him in Pakistan had also visited Morocco three times during Mr Mohamed's incarceration there. Mr Mohamed, who was freed without charge last year, claims that his Moroccan interrogators were asking him questions that could only have come from British authorities. He also says the UK government did nothing to help him after his "rendition" to Morocco.
The Metropolitan Police has launched an investigation of the MI5 officer and the new inquiry is expected to look at the far wider picture of any official complicity in the ill-treatment of terrorism suspects. One of them, Salahuddin Amin, a Briton jailed for life two years ago for plotting a major bomb attack in the UK, maintains that British agents helped orchestrate torture he claims he suffered during 10 months' imprisonment in Pakistan.
Another Briton, Rangzieb Ahmed, who is also serving a prison term for directing terrorism in the UK, claims that he was allowed to fly from Britain to Pakistan in 2006 by the secret service, which then tipped off its Pakistani counterparts, knowing he would be tortured there. "A more obvious case of outsourcing of torture, a more obvious case of passive rendition, I cannot imagine," David Davis, a Conservative MP who champions the civil liberties of detainees, told the House of Commons this year.
Welcoming the new coalition government's decision to institute a formal inquiry, Mr Davis said yesterday it was essential the investigators had access to all relevant, secret documentation. "It is vital that such an inquiry is led by a senior and impartial judge who is able to establish the facts beyond any doubt, to remove this stain on Britain's reputation, and to ensure that such allegations can never be made again," he said.
"To do this he must have unfettered access to all the people and papers related to this matter and should be able to publish anything he thinks is in the public interest, to ensure that we can draw a line under this issue once and for all." Baroness Ludford, the Liberal Democrat's human rights spokeswoman, said the inquiry contrasted with the "denial and evasion" over the issue by the previous government, led by Labour. "It's a breath of fresh air that the new Government is delivering on its promise to establish the truth about what happened regarding UK complicity in torture during the Bush years," she said.
Lord Carlile, a prominent barrister and the government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorist legislation, also welcomed the inquiry. However, he warned that it would have to wait until the criminal investigations being carried out by the police into the conduct of MI5 and MI6 officers had been dealt with. "A judge-led inquiry will presumably have to await the outcome of the criminal investigation and either the director of public prosecutions deciding to take no further action or, if he decides to take further action, the end of any trial.
"Otherwise the rights of those who are defendants in such trials will be unfairly affected," he told the BBC. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, a human rights group, said: "Liberty has long called for a public inquiry into complicity in torture during the war on terror. "This investigation must be independent, judge-led and have broad powers to call evidence and make as much as possible publicly available.
"Only this kind of inquiry can end the slow bleed of embarrassing revelation and expensive litigation and draw a line under this shameful business once and for all." firstname.lastname@example.org