Mark Steel: So which side is Algeria on in this war?

It would help if we published a table showing how much torture you can get away with for how much trade
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The Independent Online

How did anyone decide who was on which side in the war on terror? It doesn't seem to have anything to do with whether the country is keen on terror, as some, like Uzbekistan, are on the good side, although they indulge in habits such as boiling dissidents. Maybe they do it without terror, entertaining the victim with acrobats and traditional dancing. So perhaps Bush and Bin Laden picked teams at the start, taking it in turns until there were only a few scraggy ones at the back like Switzerland and the Isle of Man.

Which side would you imagine Algeria is on? A clue is in a court case involving some Algerians who are battling to avoid being extradited to their home country as suspects of terrorism. They say that would result in them being tortured. They may be right, as Amnesty International has just published a report of 12 cases from Algeria, such as one involving a suspect suspended from a ceiling for days at a time. But the British government disagrees. I suppose their case is that the police were simply trying to film an Algerian version of Mary Poppins, and now this bloke's creating a fuss because he wasn't given star billing. Or they were doing indoor bungee-jumping and he got tangled. Or he was sleeping in a self-assembly hammock and hadn't put it up properly.

Then there's Toufik Touati, who, Amnesty reports, signed a statement indicting him as a terrorist without reading what he'd signed, because he was told, "If you look at the report first I'll take out both your eyes." This must be part of a pilot scheme for Algerian detainees called The Shakespeare Experience, where they give you all the drama and tension of being a famous Shakespeare character. A kindly receptionist greets you on your arrival, beaming "Now, you can have the standard 'eyes' line, then there's 'confess or you'll be stabbed on the steps', and 'sign here or we'll poison your daughter' is very popular at the moment." When this case eventually came to court, all charges were dropped.

It's possible the current regime isn't averse to torture, as it's recently emerged from a war in which one of its favoured methods was to truss up the prisoner and fill their mouth with a rag soaked in cleaning fluid until they confessed.

I'm no expert in torture, but as a means of ascertaining whether someone did the crime or not, does that work? Surely anyone would confess. By that method you could prove that the person who planned the London bombings was the actress who plays Emily Bishop in Coronation Street. And her accomplice was the woman who plays Betty from the pub, whose confession read "Ay up chuck, ee I set up 'ole thing I did, 'cos let's face it love, that Allah's dead mighty and merciful. Right, now that's done, how about a nice brew?"

The British government's argument is that no one extradited from Britain will be tortured because the Algerians are shortly to sign a "memorandum of understanding". So that should stop them, then. Surely it would be less dicey if, instead of reclassifying the regime, the British reclassified the torture. Ministers could inform us of the benefits of the Algerian customs. For example, if hospital patients spent their time in hospital suspended from the ceiling, no one would catch MRSA no matter how filthy the surfaces were.

This might be more convincing than their current strategy, which is simply to disbelieve all the accounts that come from Algerian detainees. So the regime can torture away quite happily, whispering to prisoners afterwards, "Don't tell anyone about this, it's our little secret. And anyway, do you think anyone will believe you?"

Perhaps the British would be more sympathetic to the victims if, instead of confessing, they said "Rather than apportioning blame, why don't we draw a line under the whole thing and let's move on."

But imagine the uproar if this behaviour was coming from a country we'd decided should be bombed. Every day there'd be reports of this disgusting tyranny with its grotesque practices, and anyone who opposed a war against them would be called an appeaser of torturers and asked "Well what do you suggest then?"

So how do they pick who's on which side? The Algerian foreign minister helped to clear this up with a speech to the American ambassador, in which he said, "Algeria has worked very closely with the US to help defeat the threat posed by terrorism." Or as he said a few moments later, "I would like to point out that our trade exchange (with the US) reached a historic high last year, from $3.3bn in 2002 to $12bn in 2005."

And most of that was in oil and gas. So it would help if the British and Americans published a table, showing how much torture you can get away with for how much trade - a million barrels of oil equals 80 cattle prods and so on. Or maybe countries like Algeria should be given a loyalty card, so after each trade exchange they get the card beeped and that entitles them to 20 suspensions from the ceiling or three days with the cleaning fluid.

And they should clarify the rules, that in order to fight terror you make friends with people who practise terror, carry out your investigations in such a way that they're useless in finding out anything about terrorists, and enrage a section of the population so they're more likely to be sympathetic to terrorism. Why don't they just make out a standing order to al-Qa'ida?

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