cautious welcome for Scottish investigation into rendition

SACC welcomes the recent announcement that Scottish police are to look into the involvement of Scottish airports in "extraordinary rendition" - the illegal abduction and transfer by US authorities of people wanted for questioning (often involving torture) in connection with terrorism. However, we are very concerned that the police may be inclined to dismiss the evidence without any serious effort to bring criminal charges, as they have done on several occasions in the past.

We are also concerned that a Crown Office spokesman has been reported as saying:

"The Scottish police did not receive any specific reports of incidents involving so called rendition flights and consequently no reports of cases were submitted to the COPFS."

The Crown Office appears to have been misinformed. A specific incident was in fact reported to the police by SACC in 2006. The incident, documented by Amnesty International, Reprieve and others, involved the use of Prestwick airport for a crucial refuelling stop by a CIA aircraft following the rendition of a Yemeni man, Jamil Qasim Saeed Muhammad, from Karachi to Jordan, where he disappeared. We said to the police:

"there appear to be reasonable grounds to suspect that offences connected with aiding and abetting false imprisonment, and perhaps aiding and abetting torture and/or conspiracy to torture were committed in Scotland by the crew and operators of the aircraft and perhaps by others."

This is just one of several occasions on which Prestwick airport is known to have been used to facilitate the rendition of identified prisoners. Specific incidents were also reported by the legal charity Reprieve to Scotland's Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, in 2007. It would be remarkable if that information had not been passed on to the police.

The new inquiry is being carried out on the orders of Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, following a question in the Scottish Parliament by Margo MacDonald MSP. Her intervention was prompted by the recent launch of a website called "The Rendition Project" which provides an interactive map showing flights suspected of links with the US rendition programme. The website draws on previously published lists of suspicious flights and provides important new tools to facilitate exploration of the data. It has led to a renewal of interest in the use of Wick, Aberdeen and Inverness airports by suspicious aircraft en route to or from suspicious destinations. Stopovers at these three Scottish airports cannot at present be linked to the rendition of identified prisoners, and any further investigation would be welcome.

The new inquiry by Scottish Police has not yet developed into a criminal investigation, but is aimed at determining whether a criminal investigation should take place. Efforts in this direction have been made in the past without result, but it is very significant that the new inquiry is being carried out on the instructions of the Lord Advocate.

The police must now, as a priority, investigate the possibility that criminal conduct occurred on the five occasions on which Scottish airports are known to have provided crucial facilities for aircraft returning from the illegal transfer of prisoners. These incidents, listed below, have been widely documented and were included in the report presented to Kenny MacAskill by Reprieve:

  • 24 October 2001 - N379P refuelled at Prestwick airport, returning from the rendition of Jamil Qasim Saeed Muhammad from Pakistan to Jordan on 23 October.
  • 20 December 2001 - N379P refuelled at Prestwick airport, returning from the rendition of Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zery from Sweden to Egypt on 18 December (this rendition by US personnel is sometimes called a "transfer", presumably in deference to the sensitivities of the Swedish government that initiated it).
  • 15 January 2002 - N379P refuelled at Prestwick airport, returning from the rendition of Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni from Indonesia to Egypt on 11 January
  • 9 March 2003 - N379P refuelled at Glasgow airport, returning from the rendition of Khalid (Khaled) Sheik Mohammed from Pakistan to a secret prison in Poland on 7 March. Legal charity Reprieve revealed in 2007 that false flight plans had been filed saying that the plane had come from Prague when it had in fact come from Szymany airport, close to the secret prison. Reprieve says that the fabrication "could not have happened without the active collusion of the Polish government and Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing with an office in Crawley, England."
  • 24 July 2003 - N379P refuelled at Prestwick airport, returning from the rendition of Saifulla Paracha from Thailand to Afghanistan on 22 July.

The police must also investigate the possibility that Scottish stopovers by CIA aircraft, even when not associated with the rendition of a prisoner, were used to facilitate the travel of US interrogators likely to have been involved in torture.

Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, said:

"The new move is welcome. But it is important that the Lord Advocate makes it clear to the police that there is potential for criminal charges to be brought in relation to stopovers that directly assisted illegal prisoner transfers, even if - as is most likely the case - no aircraft visited Scotland with a prisoner on board. Given the lack of transparency that has dogged previous moves towards an investigation, it is important that the police provide the Lord Advocate with a clear explanation for whatever decision they take, and that this explanation is made public."

Solicitor Advocate John Scott told the legal magazine The Firm in 2010:

"I’m convinced that Scottish law as it is at the moment has been breached, and certainly an investigation should have taken place. Prosecutions could probably have followed. We don’t need to wait for a change in the law, but there obviously seems to be a lack of will to do anything about it."

It remains to be seen whether there has been any change since then in the will to take action.

US policy now appears to be to use drones to assassinate people it believes to be linked to terrorism rather than to abduct them for illegal imprisonment and torture. Rendition flights may therefore have become much less common in recent years than in the period 2001-2006. No recent incidents have come to light. However, no procedures have been put in place that would be likely to help police detect and respond to any new attempt to use Scottish airports to assist rendition.

Notes for editors

  1. The comment from the Crown Office regarding the reporting of incidents: probe urged over scottish role in rendition flights
  2. SACC wrote to Strathclyde Police on 19 August 2006 with details of the rendition of Jamil Qasim Saeed Muhammad. Read our letter to Strathclyde police
  3. SACC wrote to Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill on 13 June 2007 to press for an investigation. We raised a number of points that remain relevant today and once again provided details of the rendition of Jamil Qasim Saeed Muhammad. can be read at Our letter to Kenny MacAskill appears on our website, as does the response from the Scottish Government
  4. In August 2007 Clive Stafford Smith from the legal charity Reprieve personally presented Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill with a detailed report on Scottish involvement in rendition, setting out the steps that needed to be taken to investigate the matter. None of these steps have been taken. Read the report on Scottish involvement in rendition.
  5. In conjunction with other groups (including Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition and Glasgow Stop the War Coalition) SACC organised various protests at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick airports during 2005-6 and also held a protest outside the US consulate in Edinburgh.
  6. "The Rendition Project" can be found at www.therenditionproject.org.uk
  7. Suspicious stopovers at Wick, Aberdeen and Inverness, as well as being included in the database provided by the Rendition Project, were mentioned in the 2007 report from Reprieve on Scottish involvement in rendition.
  8. John Scott's comments to The Firm magazine were made in an article entitled "A global chase but the trail stops here". The Firm Magazine is bo longer (September 2016) online