Torture controversy: FAQ

By politics.co.uk staff

Ever since news broke yesterday of the government allegedly being complicit in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, the debate has centred on whether Britain was right to accept a US request not to publish documents that could threaten national security.

But the real issue at stake is whether Mr Mohamed was tortured.

Mr Mohamed, 30, was granted asylum in the UK in 1994. In 2002, after a visit to Afghanistan, he was arrested in Pakistan by American counterterrorism officers.

What happened next is not officially known, but lawyers representing the Ethiopian-born Mr Mohamed claim he was flown by extraordinary rendition to Morocco and Afghanistan.

In Morocco Mr Mohamed claims he was tortured as scalpels were used to cut into his chest and genitals, while in Afghanistan he said he was held at a secret ‘dark prison’ and routinely tortured.

On September 19th Mr Mohamed officially re-emerged when he was taken from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to Guantanamo in Cuba, being held there without charge as an ‘enemy combatant’ until the following autumn when he was charged with conspiracy, although these charges were later dropped and replaced with new military commission accusations at the end of 2008.

Serious concerns over both his physical and mental wellbeing have been expressed by his lawyers.

According to foreign secretary David Miliband, the UK government does not “cooperate, authorise or condone” torture, but Mr Mohamed claims questions US agents asked him while in detention in Morocco about his life in London could only have come from information supplied by the British secret services.

So it is unclear whether the British government was aware of, and therefore complicit in, the torture of Mr Mohamed.

Two preliminary investigations, one by the intelligence services committee and one by the attorney general, are ongoing to determine whether any criminal offences have been committed, while Mr Mohamed’s lawyers have been granted access to the 42 documents they claim prove their client’s story.

These are the same documents two high court judges want published in the public domain and that the US reportedly threatened terminating intelligence cooperation with Britain if they were made publicly available.

But did America really threaten to end cooperation with Britain’s intelligence services?.

According to the high court, they did, but the government denies this. In the Commons on Thursday, Mr Miliband said America had made no such threats, but stated the publication of the documents would threaten their national security, and in turn, Britain’s.

“What the United States said, and it appears in the open documents of this case, is that the disclosure of these documents by order of our courts would be ‘likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence information-sharing between our two governments’,” the foreign secretary said.

The issue is clouded further by claims and counter claims that the US government’s stance has not changed since the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Counsel for the Foreign Office told the high court that this was the case, but Downing St revealed last night that it was not aware of any threat from the Obama administration.

On Thursday the situation remained unclear, with Mr Miliband settling on the position that there was no threat, but that what had been said had not been lost during the transition in the White House.

A statement released from the White House last night thanked Britain for its “continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information”.

Expectations for the two UK probes that will determine whether there is grounds for Mr Mohamed’s torture claims to be investigated are low.

Many of the above questions will remain in the highly classified folder that envelopes issues of national security and intelligence-sharing.

But the question of whether Mr Mohamed was tortured may be given credence by the man himself, should he ever be released from Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Mohamed has been held at the prison for five years, but initial claims that Obama administration moves to close the camp would see him return to Britain within weeks have proved false.

It is highly likely that the delay in arranging Mr Mohamed’s return to Britain is based in part on the allegations of torture and the uncertainty over the continued status of the 42 documents judges want released.

In the battle between a UK court and an American intelligence agency, there should only be one winner, but unfortunately for the standing of the judiciary, the Pentagon will ultimately emerge victorious.

If the allegations are ever proven, the standing of the US secret services will be brought low across the world.

And for the British government the consequences could be even more disastrous. Any government which is complicit in the torture of any individual – whether one of its own citizens or not – deserves to collapse.

Mr Mohamed’s eventual return to these shores could entail serious questions being asked of the British government and the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administrations’ ‘war on terror’.

Until then however, the murky, non-legal world that Guantanamo inhabits will hold sway over the entire affair.