Legal Opinion: Has Britain been complicit in a US torture programme?

Some MPs believe British overseas territories have been used for the torture of terror suspects. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, examines the evidence
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The Independent Online

Diego Garcia, a tropical island located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, has long since given up its once-cherished status as a paradise destination. The last remaining coconut plantations were uprooted in the 1970s to make way for a US military base which is now home to nearly 2,000 American personnel.

At the height of the Cold War, the island's key role was to provide a home for US Air Force bombers and Awacs surveillance planes, as well as serve as a satellite-tracking station and communications facility. But independent military experts believe that, since 9/11, this horseshoe-shaped atoll has become the sinister destination for terror suspects who have undergone "extraordinary rendition".

A report by the Council of Europe published earlier this year found evidence that Diego Garcia was being used by the CIA as a secret prison and holding centre for people whom the Americans wished to interrogate and torture outside international law.

Both this report and human rights groups allege that Britain has played a complicit role in the use of the island as a staging post for international torture flights. Diego Garcia is a British overseas territory, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), leased to our American allies and still home to around 50 UK military personnel.

The United States continues to deny using the island as a torture base and Britain stands by this denial. But after the British government's belated acceptance of the unlawful status of Guantanamo Bay, some politicians believe Britain's stance on Diego Garcia is similarly untenable.

On 26 June this year, in one of his last appearances before Parliament, the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith QC said that he had been assured that the island had not been used for "processing high-value detainees". In an answer to a question from a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Lord Goldsmith replied:

We do not operate ourselves in Diego Garcia, as you will know, but I am aware that the United Kingdom has been assured firmly by the United States that it does not use Diego Garcia for the holding of detainees, prisoners of war or anything of that sort.

But such statements have not been enough to silence those who continue to doubt the reliability of American assurances. Yesterday, the Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie wrote to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, requesting that it investigate allegations of the use of British territory in the US rendition programme as part of its inquiry into the Overseas Territories. In his letter, he wrote: "There have been repeated allegations that the US has used the British territory of Diego Garcia in its rendition programme. Yet the Government has done next to nothing to investigate them."

Mr Tyrie added:

The UK government continues to turn a blind eye to breaches of the rule of law. Extraordinary rendition, whereby people have been kidnapped around the world and taken to places where they may be maltreated or tortured, demands its attention. It is high time our government took its head out of the sand and looked into these allegations for itself.

Should Britain be found to have played a complicit role in the use of torture or other breaches of human rights undertaken by American forces in Diego Garcia, then ministers could be held to account in a UK court of law or even face charges at the International Criminal Court.