The Big Question: What is extraordinary rendition, and what is Britain's role in it?


What is extraordinary rendition?

Rendition means the handing over or surrender of a fugitive from one state to another, and providing such transfers comply with national and international law, it is an accepted legal process. One example of a lawful rendition is the extradition of a defendant to face trial in another country. Rendition becomes unlawful when a suspect is handed over without the permission of a judicial authority or, after the transfer, that person is tortured or held in breach of their human rights.

The term "extraordinary rendition" applies to a growing number of cases in which terror suspects are arrested by the CIA and flown to another state, usually the suspect's home country, where they are subject to torture. That practice has become known as "torture by proxy" because the receiving states do not usually have laws that prohibit the use of oppression or physical abuse in the interrogation of a suspect.

Since the 1980s, the United States has increasingly turned to rendition as a judicial and extra-judicial method for dealing with foreign defendants. The advantage for the American intelligence and security services is that that they can get other countries to torture suspects in conditions that would be unlawful under US law.

According to a report published yesterday by the Council of Europe's committee on legal affairs and human rights, there is evidence to show that some suspects have been flown to secret bases run by the Americans in third-party states, including Romania and Poland.

How long has this been going on?

The first well-known case involved the hijackers of the Achille Lauro, a luxury passenger liner. After taking control of the ship, the Palestinian attackers shot an American citizen, but later managed to negotiate their own safe passage to Tunisia aboard an Egyptian airliner. While flying over international waters, they were forced down by US Air Force fighter aircraft and held at a Nato base in Italy before being transported for trial in the United States.

The CIA was granted official permission to use rendition in a presidential directive that dates to the Clinton administration. But after 9/11 the purpose of rendition changed from the gathering of vital intelligence to the removal of terror suspects to places where they could be held out of the reach of any judicial authority. The US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is the best example of post-9/11 "extraordinary rendition". Hundreds of suspects, newly termed "enemy combatants", were picked up in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia and flown to Guantanamo Bay.

Should we be opposed to it?

Many people, including some members of Britain's security and intelligence services, argue that in the fight against Al-Qa'ida the end justifies the means.

There are two reasons to be concerned about this argument. The first is that torture is illegal under international conventions and specifically outlawed by laws enacted by individual states. Almost 150 countries, including the UK, have signed the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture. To authorise or even play a complicit role in "extraordinary renditions", or "torture flights", is to undermine the rule of law.

British and American politicians have shown themselves to support this view by consistently warning that the terrorists will be able to claim victory if any nation in the fight against terror fails to respect the rule of law. In defence of the rule of law, international jurists often quote the playwright Robert Bolt, who rhetorically asked in his play A Man for all Seasons: "where do you hide from the devil after you have cut down all the laws in the land?".

The second objection to pursuing a policy of the end justifies the means is a practical one. Intelligence obtained by torture is notoriously unreliable. Well-trained Al-Qa'ida operatives know that by feeding CIA officers false information they can tie up millions of pounds of American resources in fruitless operations. This is why the aim of the CIA rendition programme has switched from interrogation to imprisonment.

Which countries are helping the Americans?

The Swiss MP Dick Marty, author of the Council of Europe report, has identified 14 European states which he says have colluded with the CIA. The report makes it clear there is further evidence to back suspicions that secret prisons are, or were, located in Poland and Romania. In an interim report in January, Mr Marty said European governments were almost certainly aware of the CIA's secret prisoner flights via European airspace or airports.

The new report says: "It is now clear, although we are still far from having established the truth, that authorities in several European countries actively participated with the CIA in these unlawful activities." Spain, Turkey, Germany and Cyprus provided "staging posts"for rendition operations, while the UK, Portugal, Ireland and Greece were "stop-off points", it says.

Is there evidence of British complicity?

Mr Marty's report specifically criticises the UK for helping in the detention and physical abuse of Binyam Mohamed al Habashi, an Ethiopian citizen who was a UK resident from 1994. The report claims Mr al Habashi, who says he was arrested in Pakistan after visiting Afghanistan, was tortured in Morocco by local intelligence officers and at least one CIA agent, who used personal information to try to get him to confess to terrorist activities. Mr Marty argues: "Much of the personal information, i ncluding details of his education, his friendships in London and even his kickboxing trainer, could only have originated from collusion in this interrogation process by UK intelligence services."

The report further accuses MI5 of co-operating with the CIA in "abducting persons against which there is no evidence enabling them to be kept in prison lawfully". It cites the case of Bisher Al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna, two UK residents who were arrested in Gambia and later transferred to Afghanistan and then Guantanamo Bay.

Do the UK and US governments admit to taking part?

The British government insists that since 1998 it has agreed to just two US requests for prisoner flights through the UK, and refused two others. Tony Blair said yesterday the new report contained nothing new. Part of the British defence relies on an assurance given by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said US had made no authorised rendition flights over British airspace. The US admits to picking up terror suspects but denies sending them to nations to face torture.

Can extraordinary rendition ever be justified?

Yes...

* Public safety is a greater good than following rules that allow terrorists to flourish in our midst

* Peacetime laws do not apply in times of war

* Rendition is not a new tactic, and governments often use illegal methods to protect national security - they maintain secret services for just such purposes

No...

* If we permit the torture of terrorists to give us the illusion of safety, we undermine our society's core respect for human dignity

* Intelligence gained from torture is unreliable and cannot be used in a court to convict terror suspects

* The rule of law is the bedrock principle upon which free societies are built - we cannot violate it whenever it suits us

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