Leading article: Ministers have a duty to come clean about torture

So much obfuscation and legalistic hair-splitting only arouses suspicion
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Until a few years ago it would have been almost inconceivable for the words "torture" and "British government" to appear together in the same sentence. That this is no longer so is cause for national shame and should prompt urgent explanations from ministers. Instead, anyone who tries to probe the allegations of those, such as the former Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed, about British complicity in the torture of terrorist suspects soon encounters a barrage of intricate word-play and obfuscation. Which is how, it appears, the Government wants to keep it.

The latest group to emerge frustrated from its investigative efforts is the Parliamentary joint committee on human rights. In a report out this week – with MPs well into their long recess – the committee accuses ministers of "hiding behind a wall of secrecy". It describes government accountability for the activities of the security services, MI5 and MI6, as "woefully deficient", and decries the failure of the foreign secretary, David Miliband, and the then home secretary, Jacqui Smith, to appear before it.

An official justification, offered by the Foreign Office minister, Ivan Lewis, on the BBC yesterday, is that the two ministers had already testified before other committees and had no obligation to appear anywhere else. If true, this suggests that it is not just government accountability that is "woefully deficient", but its attitude to human rights, too. It positively invites the question: what might they have been afraid of?

Unintentionally, perhaps, Mr Lewis's responses elsewhere in the interview offered more than a hint of an answer. Asked about claims of British "complicity", he said this: "We neither engage in, collude with, or condone torture." So that was not quite a denial. Was it coincidence that, in the parliamentary committee's view, "complicity" crosses the line into illegality?

The committee's report goes to some lengths to define complicity as having "an arrangement with a country that was known to torture in a widespread way... systematically receiving and/or relying on the information, but not physically participating in the torture". It also outlines the circumstances in which that definition might apply. These include "the presence of intelligence personnel at an interview with a detainee being held in a place where he is, or might be, tortured" and "the systematic receipt of information known or thought likely to have been obtained from detainees subjected to torture". Both are alleged by Mr Mohamed.

The report must also be seen in the context of recent confirmation that a particular MI5 agent travelled to Morocco when Mr Mohamed says he was in prison there. This very exact information suggests a source inside the security services and perhaps misgivings in the agencies about what was going on. Such precision, though, only underlines the combination of haziness and hair-splitting that has characterised every ministerial statement on torture to date.

If the Government was complicit in torture, then it has a duty to come clean and say how and why. There are those who argue that there are times when some form of torture is justified as a means of preventing a greater evil. If this was a consideration, ministers should say so. If elements of the security services had, perhaps, escaped ministerial control, ministers should admit this, too. In any event, the committee's call for an inquiry is unimpeachable. The continuing murkiness discredits not only this government, but this country.