Assurances by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, that America did not send detainees abroad for torture were dismissed last night by a cross-party group of MPs as "beyond belief".
The group, which was launched yesterday to investigate the "extraordinary renditions" of prisoners by the CIA, claimed that Ms Rice had confirmed that Britain had been told about the nature of the secret CIA flights to UK airports. Andrew Tyrie, the group's Tory chairman, said: "There has been so much smoke on this issue, it's very unlikely that there is not a fire somewhere. I think it's likely they have been tortured."
Downing Street was challenged over photographs produced at the weekend of CIA planes landing and taking off at UK airports. It denied British airports had been used for torture flights, "so far as we aware". But that statement failed to satisfy the group of MPs, including Chris Mullin, the former Labour foreign affairs minister. Mr Mullin said: "Some of the assurances in [Ms Rice's] statement defy belief in a country where there has recently been a public discussion on whether submerging prisoners in water to the point of drowning constitutes torture or not."
Mr Tyrie said Ms Rice's claim that the US respected the sovereignty of other countries was a hint that ministers knew about the flights. "By implication, whatever has been going on the British authorities have been kept informed," he said.
Mr Tyrie said Ms Rice had chosen her words carefully to avoid ruling out abuse of prisoners that stopped short of torture. "She said torture is defined by law and by implication there may be levels of duress that may be short of torture," he said.
He warned Ms Rice that defending abuse of prisoners would be counter-productive. "It's not just that people may have been tortured. It's that using torture to combat terrorism is likely to inflame Muslim opinion and leave us less secure, not more. We have learnt that lesson the hard way in Northern Ireland; the French learnt that lesson in Algeria."
Another member of the group, Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, described Ms Rice's statement as "disingenuous". He said: "The volume of evidence of transfers has become overwhelming but what possible purpose is served by rendition other than to subject individuals to harsher treatment than would otherwise be the case?
"Parliament and the public are entitled to expect the British Government to show equivalent candour. But the question remains, what did our government know and when did it know it? How high up the political tree did such knowledge go?"
The Labour chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, gave a pledge that his committee would also pursue ministers over "extraordinary rendition" flights across UK airspace. Some member of the committee privately said they were appalled after Ian Pearson, a Foreign Office minister, told a recent hearing that the Government would use information gained from torture to protect against attacks by terrorists.Reuse content