Thursday, 1 July 2010

Government's rendition bully tactics

By Clive Stafford Smith on April 29, 2010

Six years ago the British took two men into custody in Iraq. Working with the Americans, the UK then rendered the men to Afghanistan where they have been held ever since in secret detention, beyond the protection of law.

The charity for which I work, Reprieve, has been trying to reunite them with their legal rights. We do not insist that they are innocent – although the evidence suggests that they are. We do insist that they should be allowed a fair trial.

The government has a policy for this kind of thing of course. Let us identify the policy, and then compare it with the government's practice.

"Providing help to those in need has long been an important part of the value lawyers provide to society," Jack Straw said to the Law Society on 8 March 2008. "It shows the profession at its very best, giving up time and expertise to help others."

Of course, this is what Reprieve seeks to do, at no cost to the public.

"The UK's position on secret detention is clear," said a Foreign Office spokesperson recently. "We oppose any deprivation of liberty that amounts to placing individuals beyond the protection of the law."

Here, Reprieve seeks to put an end to the two prisoners' detention beyond the protection of the law.

Thus, one might reasonably assume that the government would want to help us bring the law into this secret prison.

Yet there seems to be no government policy requiring adherence to principle. For several years the government simply lied about their involvement. Consider, for example, the statement that Jack Straw made on 13 December 2005 to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC):

"Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States … there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been … Some of the reports … are in the realms of the fantastic."

Presumably we can all agree that this was false.

A leaked Home Office memorandum to then prime minister Tony Blair from December 2005 advised him to "dodge" questions about the extent of UK involvement in US renditions. Reasonable people may infer that Blair intentionally misled the public as well.

And so it went on. But in 2009, John Hutton admitted that the two men had, indeed, been rendered. I immediately wrote to him asking for their names so that Reprieve could offer them free legal representation. The Ministry of Defence wrote back saying that to disclose their names would violate the Data Protection Act. (It was OK, apparently, for Hutton to say that they were both irredeemable terrorists who should be held without trial by the US military.)

Over the next 14 months, Reprieve spent several thousand pounds trying to identify the men. We tracked down former Bagram prisoners on three continents, and they provided circumstantial hints that we pieced together. Every penny we spent could have been saved had the government merely told the truth.

We discovered evidence that proved Hutton had misled parliament as well. At least one prisoner could not possibly have been a member of the Sunni extremist group, Lashkar e Taiba, since he was a Shia rice farmer.

Over and again, as our investigation progressed, we asked the government simply to confirm their names. We underlined the heartache suffered by their innocent families. The government batted away each reasonable request.

Ultimately, this week, we had no choice but to sue to confirm the prisoners' names.

As the political parties squabble over cutting waste, they would do well to begin with the government's pointless defence of the indefensible with their expensive hired legal guns – here, as in Binyam Mohamed's case.

As if this were not folly enough, now the government has threatened to try to make Reprieve – a charity – pay their legal expenses. This is a blatant ploy to try to intimidate us from bringing suit.

When I complained about it yesterday, the MOD issued a hyperbolic response: "The suggestion that Reprieve has been 'intimidated' by a threat of costs is ridiculous." In a perverse way, this is true: we will not be intimidated, as their stratagem simply offends us.

The MOD goes on to say that they have issued this threat because we would not give them a "reciprocal" assurance that they would not have to pay us for their illegal actions, and their endless stonewalling of the truth. I cannot speak for the British lawyers involved in the case, but there is no question of the government paying Reprieve. They never have paid us for any work we have done for prisoners in secret prisons, and there is no reason to think that they are about to start now.

So it ultimately comes down to this: they want to fritter away billions on banks, but steal donations from Reprieve, a charity doing the work that they claim to encourage. It is the Robin Hood tax with a twist: rob from the poor to give to the rich. Perhaps we have finally learned what the term New Labour means: socialism turned upside-down.

This article first appeared in the Guardian

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