Don’t Accept Torture Intelligence From Abusive Countries
June 29, 2010
Berlin, Paris, and London should be working to eradicate torture, not relying on foreign torture intelligence. Taking information from torturers is illegal and just plain wrong.
Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch

(London) - France, Germany, and the United Kingdom use foreign intelligence obtained under torture in the fight against terrorism, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 62-page report, "'No Questions Asked': Intelligence Cooperation with Countries that Torture," analyzes the ongoing cooperation by the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom with foreign intelligence services in countries that routinely use torture. The three governments use the resulting foreign torture information for intelligence and policing purposes. Torture is prohibited under international law, with no exceptions allowed.

"Berlin, Paris, and London should be working to eradicate torture, not relying on foreign torture intelligence," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Taking information from torturers is illegal and just plain wrong."

The intelligence services in France, Germany, and the UK do not have detailed instructions on how to assess and follow-up on information coming from countries that torture, Human Rights Watch said. Parliamentary oversight in each country is also inadequate.

Intelligence services in all three countries claim it is impossible to know the sources and methods used to acquire shared information. But officials in the UK and Germany have made public statements indicating that they believe it is sometimes acceptable to use foreign intelligence even if it is obtained under torture. Such statements send the wrong message to abusive governments, Human Rights Watch said.

Information tainted by torture has also been used in criminal and other proceedings in France and Germany, Human Rights Watch said, despite both international and domestic rules banning the use of torture evidence in any proceedings. 

The report cites the case of Djamel Beghal, whose statements made under ill-treatment in the United Arab Emirates were used against him in a French court, where he was on trial for plotting a terrorist attack. In another example, the alleged confession of a man known as Abu Attiya under ill-treatment in Jordan was used against terrorism suspects on trial in France. German courts have allowed as evidence the summaries of interrogations of three high-profile terrorism suspects in incommunicado US detention, as well as evidence collected as result of statements made by Aleem Nasir, a Pakistan-born German citizen suspected of terrorist ties, while in the custody of the notorious Pakistani intelligence services.

Human Rights Watch said that in practice, overseas torture material can end up being used in court because the burden falls on defendants to prove it was obtained under torture, a nearly impossible task.

"The rules meant to exclude torture from the courts don't work," Sunderland said. "It should be up to prosecutors to prove that evidence originating in countries that torture wasn't obtained through abuse."

The use of torture intelligence in the fight against terrorism by France, Germany, and the UK damages the credibility of the European Union, Human Rights Watch said. The actual practices of these leading EU states contradict the EU's anti-torture guidelines, which make eradicating torture and ill-treatment a priority in its relations with other countries. Over the long-term, abuses in the name of countering terrorism also feed the grievances that fuel radicalization and recruitment to terrorism, Human Rights Watch said.

The global ban on torture under international law imposes clear obligations: states must never torture or be complicit in torture, and they must work toward the prevention and eradication of torture worldwide. States must repudiate torture in their own territories, and never encourage or condone torture anywhere in the world. Cross-border intelligence cooperation is vital in the fight against international terrorism, but it cannot, under international law, operate in contradiction to these obligations.

France, Germany, and the UK can engage in necessary intelligence cooperation without undermining the global torture ban, Human Rights Watch said. To do so, they must make genuine inquiries of countries that provide information to determine whether torture was used to obtain it and to determine what steps the authorities have taken to hold to account those responsible for any abuse that comes to light.

Cooperation should be suspended in cases where there are grounds to believe torture or ill-treatment were used to obtain shared information. There is also a need for tighter parliamentary oversight of intelligence cooperation, and stronger rules to prevent torture material from entering the judicial process.

"Europe has been forced to confront its complicity in US counterterrorism abuses," Sunderland said. "It is time for France, Germany, and the UK to take responsibility for their own role in third-party abuse, and to ensure that their intelligence cooperation isn't perpetuating abuse."

Human Rights Watch called on the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to:

  • Publically repudiate reliance on intelligence material obtained from third countries through the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
  • Reaffirm the absolute prohibition on the use of torture evidence in any kind of proceeding;
  • Clarify procedure rules on excluding torture evidence in criminal and civil proceedings to make clear that where an allegation that a statement was made under torture is raised, the burden of proof is on the state to show that it was not made under torture;
  • Ensure that national intelligence services have clear guidance on appropriate engagement with partner services with known records of torture, and that intelligence cooperation arrangements with third countries include clear human rights stipulations, including the duty to discontinue cooperation in an individual case if credible allegations of torture come to light;
  • Strengthen parliamentary oversight over national intelligence services; and
  • Ensure that any form of complicity in torture is a criminal offense in domestic law, and that state agents who are complicit in torture anywhere in the world are prosecuted, including those who systematically receive information from countries and agencies known to practice torture.