US Consuls gaffe provokes outrage in Scotland

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC), Monday 16 January 2006, 10pm
This part for immediate release
Letter to US Consul embargoed until 12.30pm, Tuesday 17 January 2006

The US Consul in Scotland has stirred up a diplomatic storm with her statement that British officials would not be "allowed" to inspect US aircraft suspected of involvement in the practice of "extraordinary rendition" if they stop off in Scotland. The Consul, Cecile Shea, made the remarks in an interview published in the Scotsman newspaper after protestors held simultaneous vigils against rendition flights at the three major Scottish airports - Glasgow, Prestwick and Edinburgh - on 18 December last year.

Campaigners - who are currently discussing plans for further protests at Scottish airports - will deliver a strongly-worded letter to Cecile Shea on Tuesday, insisting that aircraft landing in Scotland are subject to British law and that British police have a right and a duty to investigate aircraft that they suspect of involvement in criminal activity. The letter will point out that "extraordinary rendition" involves the transfer of prisoners to countries known to practise torture, and is therefore illegal under British and international law whether or not specific instances of torture connected to rendition can be proved.

Signatories to the letter include Mark Ballard MSP (Green), Chris Ballance MSP (Green), Fiona Hyslop MSP (SNP), Colin Fox MSP (SSP), Tommy Sheridan MSP (SSP), Rosie Kane MSP (SSP), Rosemary Byrne MSP (SSP), Frances Curran MSP (SSP), Carolyn Leckie MSP (SSP), Aamer Anwar (Glasgow-based human rights lawyer), as well as many other Scottish citizens and a few concerned individuals living elsewhere.

A copy of the letter was delivered on Monday to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell as he arrived in Glasgow to speak at a dinner held by the controversial Jewish National Fund - an organisation that supports the purchase of land in Israel on terms that mean it cannot be re-purchased by Arabs. A further copy of the letter is being sent to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Concern about the use of Scottish airports and Scottish airspace by aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition has been growing ever since evidence emerged last year establishing that un-marked aircraft belonging to the CIA have been landing in Scotland. Evidence linking specific flights to rendition is inevitably hard to obtain, but Amnesty International has nevertheless traced such evidence for three flights that stopped at Scottish airfields in 2001 and 2002. This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. The particular aircraft traced by Amnesty International made at least 78 stopovers between 2001 and 2005 at UK airports while en route to or from destinations such as Baku, Dubai, Cyprus, Karachi, Qatar, Riyadh, Tashkent, and Warsaw. Amnesty International says that aircraft involved in rendition made 800 flights into and out of Europe between September 2001 and September 2005.

The US does not now deny that some of these aircraft may be involved in rendition. On the contrary, US officials have been at pains to say that they - in contrast to most other interpreters of international law - regard rendition as perfectly legal. The US government has until recently refused to acknowledge officially that rendition occurred. Campaigners believe that the new US admission must inevitably trigger a ban on British airspace and airports being used to facilitate rendition, despite the obvious reluctance of the British government to take any such action. The issue is likely to prove deeply embarrassing to Tony Blair, given the current insistence by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and other senior US figures that his administration has always known about rendition.

The delegation delivering the letter to the US Consulate in Edinburgh is expected to include Mark Ballard MSP and Chris Ballance MSP. Chris Ballance sent a letter to Strathclyde police last year asking them to investigate flights suspected of involvement in rendition, and Mark Ballard sent a similar letter to Lothian and Borders police. The police have so far said that there is insufficient evidence for them to act. Campaigners argue that there are very clear grounds for suspecting that some CIA aircraft are involved in rendition, and that this should be quite enough to justify a police investigation.

Chris Ballance tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament last year calling on the Lord Advocate to instruct the police to instigate an inquiry. Carolyn Leckie MSP (SSP) tabled a subsequent motion calling on the Executive to issue a statement about its intentions and drawing attention to new evidence on the death in custody of detainees held overseas by the US. The Scottish Socialist Party initiated a debate on rendition in the Parliament on 22nd December. The Parliament agreed that it disliked torture, but failed to resolve upon any decisive action to prevent it.

SACC will continue to press for the British government and the Scottish Executive to take firm and urgent steps to ensure that Scottish facilities cannot be used to facilitate kidnapping, illegal detention and torture, and to press the police to investigate every suspected instance of these crimes diligently. We hope that Cecile Shea and other US diplomats will stop trying to defend the indefensible and instead cooperate with efforts to investigate suspected criminal activity by US personnel.

Torture is an outrage. Now that the US officially admits to shuttling prisoners around the world's torture hot-spots, firm action cannot be long delayed.

Notes for Editors

  1. Text of the letter to Cecile Shea follows at the end of this message
  2. A delegation will deliver the letter to the US consulate in Edinburgh at 12.30pm, Tuesday 17 January.
  3. Cecile Shea's comments can be found in the Scotsman 19 December 2005 US Slams "frenzy of paranoia over prisoner flights but rules out any British inspections by Gethin Chamberlain
  4. Evidence on the death in custody of detainees held overseas by the US can be found at http://action.aclu.org/torturefoia/released/102405/
  5. For details of the 3 rendition flights traced by Amnesty International, see Rendition and 'disappearances' in the 'war on terror'. For information about the 800 flights said by AI to have been made into or out of Europe, see USA: 800 secret CIA flights into and out of Europe

Letter to Cecile Shea - Campaigners demand apology from US Consul

Embargoed until 12.30pm Tuesday 17 January, London time, 7.30am Tuesday 17 January, Washington time

Dear Cecile Shea,

We, the undersigned, are writing to you to express our horror at the US government’s practice of "extraordinary rendition", and at the apparent use of Scottish airports and Scottish airspace by US aircraft involved in this process.

We are dismayed at the public statements you have made on this matter, and in particular at your response to the protests held at Scottish airports on 18 December 2005. You told the Scotsman (19 December) that British officials would not be “allowed” on to US aircraft to check them. We remind you that Britain is a sovereign nation and that it is hardly up to you to rule on who will be allowed onto aircraft parked on Scottish tarmac. We think your remarks amount to an abuse of your position as a diplomat and we look forward to hearing a public apology from you.

You say that there is no "factual basis" for the allegations against the US administration. So let us remind you of just a small part of the growing body of facts:

  • Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have made it crystal clear that the US uses "extraordinary rendition"
  • "Extraordinary rendition" involves sending prisoners overseas for interrogation in countries that are known internationally for practising torture. The British government accepts that many of these countries practise torture. British law prevents people being deported to such countries if they are at risk of being picked up by police there and tortured.
  • Conditions and interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay do not meet international human rights standards, as interpreted by Britain and many other democratic countries. A British High Court judge acknowledged this last year when he said that he would have had no hesitation in quashing the extradition of Babar Ahmad to the US, had there been any risk of Babar Ahmad being sent to Guantanamo Bay. So when we hear that people are being taken out of US jurisdiction so that they can be interrogated more "robustly" than would be possible even at Guantanamo Bay, we can be certain that torture is intended.

We wish to make it clear that the US isn't the only country that we suspect of involvement in the international crime of torture. It is abundantly clear the British government is complicit in "extraordinary rendition" and in other instances of torture, as has been demonstrated by the testimony of the Pakistani men recently detained in Greece, and by the testimony of Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Our complaint is directed against the US government, not against the American people. We know that countless Americans detest these practices. We applaud all those Americans who have spoken out in defence of human rights, and we applaud the efforts that the US judiciary has made to hold the administration to account over abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

But we insist that the US must respect international law, and that US personnel must be held accountable on British territory before the British legal system and the British people.

We hope that you will reflect on the way that you interpret your role as US Consul in Scotland. By acting as local bully for the White House you risk undermining relations between Scotland and the US. There is another, more honourable path for diplomats to follow. Like Britain's Craig Murray and former US State Department diplomat Anne Wright, you could put your duty under international and US law above your obligations to your political boss. Please think about it.