x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UN expert questions validity of Britain's torture inquiry

UN's expert on torture cases warns government that its inquiry into complicity is inadequate.

LONDON // The validity of a government-ordered inquiry into British complicity in the torture of Islamist terror suspects has suffered a further blow following criticism of the secrecy surrounding it by a senior UN diplomat.

In the summer, leading civil liberties groups and lawyers for former Guantanamo Bay detainees who claim to have been tortured, decided to boycott the inquiry, ordered in July last year by David Cameron, the prime minister. It has yet to start because of continuing police inquiries.

Now Juan Mendez, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, has voiced fears that unless it is seen to be open and transparent, it will "only serve to cover up abuses and encourage recurrence".

Like the civil liberties groups, Mr Mendez is worried by the government decision announced in July that civil servants will make the final decision on what evidence presented to the inquiry, to be headed by former judge Sir Peter Gibson, should be made public.

"The way to deal with the cancer of torture is to fully root it out with a wide-ranging, independent and fully public inquiry," said Mr Mendez, who was tortured in Argentina and arrived in London at the weekend for the launch late on Monday of his book Taking a Stand: the Evolution of Human Rights.

The government decided to order the inquiry after the release from Guantanamo Bay in 2009 of Binyam Mohamed, 33, an Ethiopian living in Britain. He had been arrested in 2002 in Karachi after the US military claimed he had fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

After being tortured in Pakistan - where, he said, a British intelligence officer directed the questioning - Morocco and Afghanistan, he was taken to Guantanamo where he spent four years before finally being released by the Americans without charge.

More than a dozen other detainees with UK citizenship or residency subsequently came forward alleging that British secret service agents had been complicit in their torture. Faced with mounting numbers of legal cases, the government last year reached out-of-court settlements with 16 of them, Mr Mohamed reportedly receiving £1 million (Dh5.8m).

Mr Mendez said, given the circumstances, the government was "doing absolutely the right thing in having an inquiry into these gravely serious allegations".

But: "I have heard of limitations that may frustrate the very object of such an exercise. During my current visit I hope to learn more about the parameters that have been set for it.

"A less than open and transparent inquiry would only serve to cover up abuses and encourage recurrence."

Those behind the inquiry insisted that the investigation into the treatment of detainees, including accusations that Britain was complicit in their "extraordinary rendition", would be "thorough, fair and transparent".

They said that all evidence would be heard in public unless it was deemed to be a threat to national security or the national interest "and any other reasons such as health or security that would make it difficult for the witness to appear or to be entirely frank in public".

They added: "We are surprised that Mr Mendez did not speak to the inquiry before he made his public statement."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the London-based civil rights group Liberty, said: "When the UN's torture expert warns a government that its inquiry into complicity is inadequate, it really is time to think again.

"The UK has shown itself capable of setting up properly independent judicial inquiries into other scandals. Is torture any less serious? A process where officials talk to themselves in secret and the Cabinet Office approves the final report would be seen around the world not so much as an inquiry as a very British farce."