‘Torture inquiry’ demanded

By Alex Stevenson

Frustrated parliamentarians are insisting on a public inquiry into allegations the British government has been complicit in torture.

MPs and peers on the joint committee on human rights (JCHR) believe such a probe is the only step forward after listing 21 still-unanswered questions on Britain’s complicity with torture.

Their calls have been backed by human rights groups including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Liberty.

The JCHR want to know more about the state and knowledge of UK agents and ministers about the treatment of detainees by foreign bodies like the Pakistani Intelligence Services.

Questions about the content of UK guidance about involvement in torture, and how these have been affected by recent developments, are raised.

And further unanswered queries about the legal advice provided and which ministers knew about these policies are also pressing.

The government has refused to cooperate with the committee, denying it the opportunity to question relevant ministers.

Today’s report said it justified these refusals because ministers were “unable to add any further detail” to the government’s previous blanket denials on the issue.

Government resistance to scrutiny by such inquiries has been in the headlines recently after Gordon Brown’s reluctance to see the Iraq inquiry’s evidence sessions held publicly.

The prime minister was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on that issue and committee chair Andrew Dismore now believes a similar investigation is needed on torture.

“General assertions of non-complicity are no longer an adequate response to the many detailed allegations,” he said.

“An independent inquiry is the only way to get to the bottom of these stories, clear the air and make recommendations for the future conduct and management of the security services.”

A series of recent allegations have raised the issue of British complicity in torture again and again.

Last August the Guardian newspaper made allegations that a number of UK terrorists and terror suspects had been tortured while in Pakistan and had been questioned by British officials after, and in some cases during, “periods of mistreatment”. Some of its findings were backed by Human Rights Watch.

Further claims were made about Azhar Khan, who alleged he had been tortured in Egypt on the basis of information supplied by British authorities; by Norwich North by-election candidate Craig Murray, a former ambassador of Uzbekistan, who claimed to have blown the whistle on UK involvement in extraordinary rendition; and by Binyam Mohamed, whose high-profile claims after his release from Guantanamo Bay prompted a denial to the Commons from foreign secretary David Miliband.

The government has responded by refusing to admit complicity. A statement to the JCHR said its policy was “not to participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment for any purpose”.

But MPs and peers have been angered by their apparent desire to avoid scrutiny on the issue. Today’s report outlines a series of measures to improve this, including making all relevant legal opinions to ministers public and making the intelligence and security committee report to parliament rather than the prime minister.

Mr Dismore added: “The recent allegations should be a wake-up call to ministers that the current arrangements are not satisfactory.

“We look to the government to respond positively to our recommendations and not to continue to hide behind their wall of secrecy.”

Today’s report has been warmly welcomed by human rights organisations, which have been campaigning for such an inquiry for months.

Amnesty International UK’s director Kate Allen said it felt as if the government was “still trying to brush this issue under the carpet”.

“As the allegations mount it’s no longer enough to simply trot out bland denials about how the government doesn’t condone torture,” she said.

“Instead, we need an announcement that there will be a full inquiry as soon as possible.”

Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti went further, describing an independent inquiry as “inevitable”.

“Only a judge-led investigation will ensure that the public finally learns what ministers knew or ought to have known about interrogation under torture,” she said.

“Will government have the courage and the decency to call such an inquiry without delay?”

Apparently not. A joint statement from the Home Office and Foreign Office issued last night made clear ministers intend to keep their knowledge about the extent of other countries’ practices behind closed doors.

“The government has already made clear it is committed to publishing guidance to intelligence officers as well as asking the ISC to consider new developments on detention and rendition,” a spokesman said.

“For these reasons, we continue to believe that an independent inquiry is not necessary.”