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The United Kingdom cannot deport security suspects to Jordan without violating the international prohibition against sending persons to countries where they face a serious risk of torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch said that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by Jordan and the U.K. on August 10 promising that transferred persons will not be mistreated does nothing to reduce that risk or to change the obligation not to expose people to torture.

“There is still torture in Jordan, especially with regard to security suspects,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “All the good reasons that prevented the U.K. from deporting people to Jordan before August 10 remain unchanged by this agreement.”

The U.K. and Jordan are both parties to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibits torture, and the transfer, return (refoulement) or expulsion of persons to countries where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture. Under international law, the prohibition against torture and refoulement is absolute and cannot be waived under any circumstances.

Britain recently detained several foreign residents who may now face deportation, among them ‘Umar Mahmud ‘Uthman Abu ‘Umar, who is better known as Abu Qatada. Jordan’s State Security Court, composed of two military and one civilian judge, had sentenced Abu Qatada, a Jordanian national, to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the Khadir Abu Hawshar Cell’s Millennium Bomb plot and again to life imprisonment for financing terrorist activities of the Reform and Challenge Movement. Both sentences, handed down in 2000 and 2001 respectively, were in absentia.

Criminals convicted in absentia have the right to a full retrial once they come into Jordanian custody. It is unclear whether Mahmud Abu Rida, another Jordanian ruled to be a national security threat to Britain and thought to be among those awaiting deportation there, is currently facing any charges or has been convicted in Jordan. Both Abu Qatada and Mahmud Abu Rida had been granted asylum in Britain, but the U.K. Home Secretary David Blunkett has sought to deport Mr. Abu Rida since December 2001. In March 2004, court documents show that the Home Office “recognised […] that he [Abu Qatada] cannot be returned to Jordan since he would be likely to face persecution or breaches of his human rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Human Rights Watch said that the August 10 MOU represents an effort to get around the Convention against Torture’s strict non-refoulement obligation and has no mechanism for accountability. Jordan stands to gain custody of criminal suspects while Britain rids itself of unwelcome persons, and neither country has any incentive to monitor treatment or investigate allegations of abuse. Under the MOU, only verbal notice is required to set proceedings in motion. The Jordanian interior minister has so far publicly denied receiving a British request to invoke the MOU, but indicated that Jordan would seek Abu Qatada’s extradition to Jordan over the coming days. Abu Qatada and Mahmud Abu Rida have the right to challenge their deportation in a British court.

“Jordan’s General Intelligence Department, prisons and ordinary police stations all have known records of abuse,” Stork said. “By seeking Jordanian promises to treat these returned persons differently, the U.K. is confirming that the risk of torture continues.”

In September 2004, the National Human Rights Center, an official body, announced that Abdullah al-Mushaqaba had died in Juwaida Prison as a result of torture. Detainees of that same prison told the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Jordan, a local non-governmental organization, in August 2005 that that they were severely beaten. Last year, the National Human Rights Center received 250 allegations of torture or ill-treatment in Jordanian detentions. These numbers do not include the General Intelligence Directorate, which did not allow any visits by non-governmental human rights monitors. The Intelligence Directorate is often the first place of detention for security detainees.

There are several reasons why diplomatic assurances such as the MOU fail to protect against torture, Human Rights Watch said.

First, unlike the situation when a country promises it will not impose the death penalty, torture is universally condemned and nearly always clandestine. Neither a sending nor a receiving country has any incentive to expose or confront abuse—the receiving country could be implicated in torture or ill-treatment, and the sending country could be implicated in violating the prohibition against refoulement. Second, as the name implies, diplomatic assurances are generally subject to the limits of diplomacy and lack effective mechanisms to secure compliance.

Human Rights Watch said that the U.K. plans to conclude similar agreements with other countries across the region, including Egypt and Algeria.

“Jordan, Egypt and Algeria all have a documented history of torture,” said Stork. “Neither Britain nor any other country should consider returning people to such countries where they face the risk of torture.”

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