Paul Vallely: Complicit in torture, we must own up

Britain, which stood by when prisoners were questioned under duress, should say so, and put pressure on the US
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The Independent Online

You cannot tell from seeing him on television whether or not Iqbal Madni is a liar. But there is enough about the circumstances surrounding the story he tells to make it profoundly shocking. Mr Madni has been crippled by seven years of detention and torture in Indonesia, Egypt, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. He is a victim of the process sanitised with the euphemism "extraordinary rendition". And it seems pretty clear that Britain played a role in his terrible experience.

There are respectable politicians in this country who, in private, will shrug when concerns are raised about the rough treatment of young men from the UK who were found in Afghanistan not long after the 2001 bombings in New York – especially those who had unconvincing explanations for their presence in the land of al-Qa'ida's terrorist training camps. But even they have to admit that Iqbal Madni was not a young religious zealot found running round a war zone.

The Pakistani who made his living as a professional reciter of the Koran – which he had memorised by the age of 12 – was arrested in Jakarta four months after 9/11. He had gone there to find his stepmother to tell her that her ex-husband has died of a stroke in Pakistan. The locals who had befriended him turned out to be hardline Islamists in whose company there had been talk about a shoe bomb. Madni was arrested by the Americans.

After he was knocked about a bit by the Indonesians he was shackled in a crate, bleeding from his ear and nose, and flown to Egypt where he was locked in a cell so small he couldn't sit up or lie down. He was then interrogated using electric shocks to his knees. He was next transferred to Afghanistan and interned there for a year before being taken to Guantanamo, where he was treated as an outcast by the other prisoners because he had not been trained in Afghanistan.

Eventually he was released, after American officials concluded that he was a braggart who had "wanted to believe he was more important than he was". He was never convicted of any crime, nor even charged with one.

Britain is mired in all this because when Iqbal Madni was flown to Egypt the plane refuelled on the island of Diego Garcia, which is a British territory. For six years we denied that the island had been used for rendition flights, but last year our Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was forced to admit that two US rendition flights had landed on UK soil. Mysteriously, though, all the records relating to flights through Diego Garcia since the start of 2002 have been destroyed. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in its report on rendition, published today, has called for an investigation as to why.

It is a report that raises more questions than it gives answers in its acknowledgement of the complexity of this issue. "The Government has a duty to use information that comes into its possession, from whatever source and however obtained, if it believes this will avert the loss of life," it concedes. But it firmly insists that Britain should "exert as much persuasion and pressure as possible to try to ensure worldwide that torture is not employed as a method of interrogation".

Such ambivalence is understandable. During the "war on terror", British officials were placed in an impossibly difficult position. They sat on one side in rooms where US officials read out high-minded declarations about the Geneva Conventions and then turned to the Americans present and said these did not apply to terrorist subjects. The British were asked to draw up lists of questions for interrogations, but also told to leave the room if it seemed that torture was to be used.

We know all this from a wide range of sources. We know from David Davis's use of parliamentary privilege, last month, that British police allowed the key al-Qa'ida figure Rangzieb Ahmed to travel from Manchester to Pakistan. They then asked the security services there, the ISI, who are known for mistreatment and torture, to arrest and interrogate him. When Ahmed was returned to the UK 13 months later, he was jailed for life largely on the basis of evidence gathered before he went to Pakistan.

No one is pretending there are facile solutions here. Again the Foreign Affairs Committee report reflects that. "The UK must, by necessity, maintain its relationship with Pakistani intelligence," it acknowledges, but adds, "We are very concerned by allegations that the nature of the relationship UK officials have with the ISI may have led them to be complicit in torture."

All this raises what the report calls "profoundly difficult moral questions". The key question is why does the Government refuse to acknowledge that. Ministers should engage in a public debate about this issue of complicity. Instead they repeatedly issue weasel-word statements that Britain does not "participate in, solicit, encourage or condone" the use of torture.

We discovered why last week, when a Foreign Office lawyer admitted to three High Court judges that it wants to suppress parts of the transcript of the interrogation of another terrorist suspect, Binyam Mohamed. This is not because disclosure would threaten our national security but because it would embarrass the United States – apparently the paragraphs reveal the Americans tortured the man. Washington, the lawyer told the court, had threatened sanctions if the material was released.

The time has come for the Government to change tack. If we cannot be frank about the moral dilemmas of the past, the danger is that they will be repeated in the future. The Foreign Secretary should have the courage to say that to Washington. Sometimes being a good friend means telling someone they are wrong. He might even find that Barack Obama will agree.