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Diplomatic deals expose deportees to torture risk

Amnesty says Britain has led the way in relying on 'worthless' assurances

Britain's policy of relying on diplomatic deals to return terror suspects to countries with dubious human rights records is not adequate to prevent torture and unlawful detention, it is claimed today.

Amnesty International says the UK Government must end its practice of deporting foreign nationals after securing "worthless" no-torture agreements. Describing the UK as "the most influential and aggressive" promoter of the policy of seeking "diplomatic assurances", the human rights organisation claims that two Algerians deported by the UK in 2007 were ill-treated on return. The Algerian government did not offer diplomatic assurances of humane treatment to the UK Government in these cases, but did tell the men directly that they would be protected under an amnesty.

But after they were returned, claims Amnesty, the two were detained by the security police for two weeks, interrogated, and beaten and threatened. Both were later convicted of "participation in a terrorist network operating abroad". Britain has no-torture deals with Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya; one with Algeria is being considered.

This week the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is set to rule on the case of an Ethiopian national threatened with deportation based on a "memorandum of understanding" between the UK and Ethiopia that promises that the man will not be tortured on return. However, Amnesty has documented serious human rights abuses in Ethiopia and believes diplomatic deals with Ethiopia are an extremely unreliable guide to future treatment in that country. The case of Abu Qatada, threatened with deportation to Jordan under a no-torture deal signed, is before the European Court of Human Rights. In February 2007 a UK immigration court dismissed Qatada's appeal against deportation. Following a further appeal, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ruled in April 2008 that he could not be forcibly returned to Jordan because evidence extracted by the torture of a key witness would most likely be used in his possible retrial there.

Amnesty's expert on counter-terrorism and human rights in Europe, Julia Hall, said: "Assurances against torture from governments that routinely practise such abuse cannot be trusted. European governments that accept these hollow promises are undermining the absolute prohibition of torture."

The use of diplomatic assurances on torture has increased considerably since the 11 September attacks on the US, says Amnesty, listing 12 countries involved in the controversial practice: Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Britain.

The Amnesty report singles out the UK Government for over-reliance on diplomatic assurances. UK authorities began seeking assurances in national security-related cases in 1992, and the policy has developed to include general "memorandums of understanding" with key countries. In May 2006 the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that employing diplomatic assurances to effect deportations of those accused of posing a threat to national security could "place deported individuals at risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment".

Last night the Foreign and Commonwealth Office denied that the UK deports people where there are grounds for believing there is a real risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. An spokesperson said: "Our domestic UK Courts and the European Court of Human Rights have accepted the principle of seeking diplomatic assurances to remove someone."