William Hague came under pressure last night to launch an official inquiry into allegations that Britain helped the United States to transport terror suspects to be tortured overseas, after leading barristers ruled there was "no legal barrier" preventing an immediate investigation.
In line with promises from both coalition parties, the Foreign Secretary pledged last month that he would order a "judge-led" inquiry into persistent claims that the UK was complicit in "extraordinary rendition". Campaigners hoped the inquiry would expose security and intelligence officials accused of colluding in torture – and senior government figures alleged to have authorised their activities over the past decade.
However, MPs and human-rights activists have become frustrated at the delay in announcing the terms and start date of the promised investigation. It has been claimed that the Government is using the "excuse" that it cannot launch an inquiry while related court cases are under way.
But a legal opinion obtained by the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition today declares that "there is no legal impediment to holding an inquiry while related court cases are before the courts".
The chairman of the all-party group, the Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, said the legal opinion – from QCs Richard Drabble and Toby Fisher of Landmark Chambers – "notes that inquiries have run in parallel to criminal investigations in the past, and describes measures that could be taken to mitigate any adverse effects of an inquiry upon criminal or civil cases".
Mr Tyrie has now written to Mr Hague calling on the coalition to "deliver on its promises". He added: "The Foreign Secretary's announcement last month, that the new government intends to hold an inquiry into extraordinary rendition, showed that there is no longer any political impediment to holding an inquiry. This document shows that there is no legal barrier either.
"A short, judge-led inquiry into British involvement in extraordinary rendition is vital to restore the public's confidence that we cannot so easily be caught up in rendition in the future."
The decision to hold an inquiry follows revelations about Britain's alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition in recent years. The list of allegations includes claims that the UK allowed CIA planes believed to be carrying terror suspects to use British airspace and airports, that detainees were handed over to US forces despite fears they were to be tortured, and that the UK might have used intelligence that could have been attained through torture.
A former senior member of the Bush administration, speaking to The Independent on Sunday, says the British authorities must have known about the US rendition and torture programme, but chose to turn a blind eye to it.
The source said: "The CIA is fed up with Brits backsliding, ie, receiving info derived from torture and then claiming not to condone it. I can't tell you for certain the British knew, but I can confirm that I have heard similar concerns from intelligence people."
On 20 May 2010, Mr Hague confirmed that the coalition government was committed to holding an inquiry and would announce the details "in the not too distant future".
"What we said in the election, and what has been agreed by the coalition, is that it would be a judge-led inquiry. Now, as I say, we're working on what form that will take. Proposals on this will follow pretty soon."Reuse content