Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A depressing saga of secrets, lies and medieval horrors

The US and UK pay others to do what Saddam used to do to his jailed adversaries

This is Britain’s position on torture: we ratified the UN Convention against it in 1988 and we then passed an Act of Parliament giving authority to the investigation and prosecution of torturers no matter where they cowered. But impressive as all this sounds, how precisely has it helped Binyam Mohamed?

Today, God willing, he will arrive back from Guantanamo Bay, the sunny Caribbean resort funded hitherto by the generous USA for the Mad Men of Islam who, we have been told for years, are the biggest danger to world peace. Mohamed’s doctors have found serious bruising, organ damage, acute injuries and emotional and psychological collapse.

His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith said: “What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the Middle Ages.” His client is also suffering from malnutrition and stomach problems – which must be the result of a long hunger-strike, a silent protest which might have killed and released him. And our government is suffering from the discomfort of having to justify the immorality of the actions and that keep the global torture industry robust. Mohamed will not be received at the airport by a contrite Foreign Secretary, who has long obfuscated and denied any responsibility for all the bad stuff – unseen and unheard – that goes on around the world, ostensibly to combat Islamicist terrorism.

Recently Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones said the UK Government had been forced by the US to suppress information on this case, a claim breezily rejected by the Foreign Secretary, an accomplished operator.

Yet the case against the government grows. I find that deeply depressing. For the two talented Milibands are, in other ways, good men whose father Ralph, a Polish-Jewish exile, was a left-wing academic with a consuming sense of justice. An opponent of the US Vietnam war, he condemned the “catalogue of horrors” perpetrated by the US “in the name of an enormous lie”.

Those lies and horrors are now part of the essential toolkit for an ambitious minister. Power corrodes, flushing away honour and wisdom and, it seems, personal memory too. Obama promised to shut down Guantanamo Bay and he delivered. For that he deserves immense respect. However, this is not the end of the US- and UK-endorsed use of extreme pain to break people in custody. Ever since the fateful attacks on 11 September 2001 and in truth, long before that in covert operations, these two states have outsourced torture to some of the most lawless regions in the world or to regimes which commonly use physical and psychological coercion in exchange for influence or cash. There is no sign yet that Obama means to outlaw renditions, secret abductions by the CIA, or the unrecorded movement of prisoners. The fear is that these clandestine activities will continue. Shutting down the – always provocative – Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre is possibly a way to placate protesters and carry on regardless. I hope Obama has more moral sense than that.

The US and UK pay others to do what Saddam used to do to his adversaries in custody. This facility is procured by, and makes perfect sense to, those who believe the end justifies anything. Just this week President Obama met Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Canadian opposition who wrote The Lesser Evil, a book which defended torture when used to protect the interests of the US. Then we wonder why the world accuses the West of perfidy.

This week Human Rights Watch publishes a report alleging that the British state is implicated in the torture of captured Muslims in Pakistan. UK intelligence and Foreign Office officials have questioned the prisoners whilst they were being processed says Pakistan’s feared Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Ali Dayan Hasan, who directed this study, claims there was “systemic” cooperation. Some had nails pulled out and others went through much worse. In 2004, three British Muslim men, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed were released without charge from Guantanamo. They had done the multi-destination tour that is popular with those waging war on terror by reproducing terror. Captured in Afghanistan they were tortured and allegedly interrogated by our SAS. And there is now a growing suspicion that our government has devised policies for this murky business. The countries that oblige us by taking and sorting out the troublesome ones include Pakistan and Afghanistan of course, and also other very good friends – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Israel – others too I am sure. And these special relationships go back a very long way.

In his disturbing and clearly evidenced book, The War on Truth, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed traces the unholy games played with Islamicist terrorists by the US, and through acquiescence by the UK, flirting with them when it suited and then turning against them. Al-Qa’ida has been used as an instrument of western statecraft and for now is the enemy. Well, not quite. Pakistan’s ISI is quite chummy with the Bin Laden groupies and, well, we have to keep Pakistan on side as they know so many of our secrets. So it goes on.

Binyam Mohamed’s arrival will hopefully open this can of snakes and our government will be interrogated, though without screws and electrodes. If Miliband apologises we should sing the lines from Rihanna’s hit: “Don’t tell me you’re sorry ’cause you’re not; when I know you’re sorry you got caught”.

But what of those countries that tender for torture? Who calls them to account? The expert interrogators abroad practice on their own citizens. Egypt does this par excellence. Factories somewhere make the instruments too. Again there is little information of where these job opportunities are. And so torture spreads, endorsed by messianic democrats and activated by barbarians whose services are essential to keep us civilised. It works for both sides. The US and the UK can claim ignorance of what goes on in those dark cells pierced by screams; and obliging nations can do their business efficiently in countries without any transparency. There is a long history of such mutuality in evil. Apartheid had willing black operators; the transatlantic slave trade depended on black suppliers. These colluders always get away with it.

The UN Convention against Torture states: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”

That absolute injunction still stands whatever happens to us in the West, including further terror attacks. And if we don’t hold its principle precious all is lost and there can be nothing left for any of us to live and die for.