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UK: Torture Inquiry Decision Important First Step

Will Need Strong Mandate, Cooperation From Security Services

(London) - The British government's planned inquiry into the complicity of UK intelligence agencies in torture should be comprehensive, independent, and public, Human Rights Watch said today. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the inquiry in comments to the BBC last night, but did not provide details regarding its scope, time-scale or composition.

"This new government has done something its predecessor lacked the courage to do - order an investigation into the mounting evidence of British complicity in torture," said Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch. "It's vital that this inquiry has the mandate to follow the evidence however high it leads, and the full cooperation of the security services."

Human Rights Watch believes that in order for the inquiry to be successful it should:

  • Be held in public;
  • Not be held under the Inquiries Act 2005, which allows the government to control an inquiry.
  • Have the full cooperation of the security services;
  • Examine all cases brought to its attention in which UK complicity is alleged;
  • Assess whether the guidance provided to the members of the security services in the interrogation of suspects overseas and on cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies was adequate to prevent complicity;
  • Examine the degree to which UK government policy, and decisions by UK ministers and officials, contributed to such abuse.
  • Examine whether the British justice system is able to investigate and prosecute those responsible for acts of complicity or participation in torture, as required by the Convention against Torture;
  • Assess adequacy of mechanisms of oversight of the security services, including that provided by the Intelligence and Security Committee;
  • Produce a public report with detailed recommendations on the steps needed to ensure that UK security services are never again complicit in torture overseas.

In November 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing five cases in which UK security services were complicit in the torture of UK citizens in Pakistan by the Pakistan security services.  Cases of complicity have also been documented by the Guardian, and by other civil society organizations.

Pressure for an inquiry has been mounting. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) both issued critical reports about UK complicity in 2009, with the JCHR concluding that an inquiry was necessary. In March 2010, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, together with Human Rights Watch and three other leading NGOs, called on the incoming government to order a judicial inquiry.

But the previous government refused to order an inquiry, even when confronted with the detailed evidence in Human Rights Watch's report on Pakistan. It instead repeated blanket denials of wrongdoing, and pointed to the existence of two police investigations - one into allegations of complicity by one or more MI5 agents in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, and another into unspecified allegations involving one or more MI6 agents, referred by that agency - as sufficient steps towards accountability. Those criminal investigations must continue in parallel to the inquiry, Human Rights Watch said. 

The previous government also failed to publish the guidance given to members of the security services on interrogation of suspects held overseas, despite an undertaking by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in March 2009 to do so once it had been reviewed by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). The guidance was finally made available to the ISC in November 2009, which has yet to release it.  The new government should order the release of the current and historic guidance without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

There has been longstanding support for an inquiry from a number of senior Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. Liberal Democrat leader (now Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg committed his party to an inquiry during the election campaign.  The detailed coalition government agreement released yesterday includes a commitment "never to condone torture."

"This inquiry offers the chance to help restore Britain's global reputation as an anti-torture champion," said Porteous. "It's not only the right thing to do, it's also crucial for efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment to terrorism at home and abroad."

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