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SNP face backlash for hiring firm accused of Iraq torture

by Neil MacKay Sunday Herald, 24 August 2008

THE SNP are being warned this weekend that they risk alienating Scotland's Muslim community and the entire anti-war movement because of the party's insistence on hiring a firm accused of torturing Iraqi prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad to carry out the nation's next census.

The warning, from the most prominent Muslim leaders and organisations in the country as well as from the heads of the nation's peace movement, follows the Sunday Herald's exposure last month that the SNP granted an £18.5 million contract to CACI UK, a subsidiary of the firm accused of involvement in torture in Abu Ghraib.

The SNP's decision to employ CACI badly damaged the party's claims that it put human rights at the top of its agenda and was more ethical than Labour. It also led to fears that the personal data of millions of Scots collected by CACI as part of the census might end up in the hands of the US government, given the close relationship between the Bush administration and the company's head office in Arlington, Virginia.

CACI's parent company in the US was one of two private US contractors hit with lawsuits from four Iraqis in June over allegations that they were tortured in Abu Ghraib. US civilian staff working for private American security companies which specialised in carrying out interrogation work for the military were heavily implicated in human rights abuses against detainees.

There have also been allegations that CACI interrogators used dogs to terrify captives, placed detainees in "stress positions" and encouraged soldiers to abuse prisoners. Scottish human rights campaigners criticised the decision, taken in June, to appoint CACI as the nation's census-taker in 2011, and also accused the SNP of selling their soul. There were calls for a mass boycott of the census by the nation's population.

Glasgow Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar said the SNP's decision to award CACI the contract after their high-profile opposition to the invasion of Iraq looked like "sheer hypocrisy", adding: "They have let down the reputation of Scotland. I have heard Alex Salmond say that the Iraq war has damaged our image abroad. What he has done now is damage that image even more.

"How can the SNP on one hand say they are against the war and then on the other hand give over sensitive data on Scottish Muslims and others to this company? This decision has damaged the credibility of the SNP with all communities in Scotland, particularly the Muslim community."

Sarwar is among hundreds of Scottish citizens who have signed an online petition opposing the contract and calling for its cancellation. The petition, launched by the Scottish branch of the Stop The War Coalition, highlights the promise made by deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon at the World Against War march in Glasgow in March. At the event, she said: "We now have a government in Scotland that opposes the war in Iraq and is prepared to say so."

Among the signatories are SNP members and voters. One SNP supporter says in the petition notes that they are "very disappointed and surprised that the SNP government could even contemplate endorsing anything like this".

Aamer Anwar, a prominent figure in the country's Muslim community and a leading human rights lawyer, is to meet with the heads of the General Register Office of Scotland, which runs the country's census, to discuss the awarding of the contract to CACI.

"It is unacceptable that the SNP is refusing to cancel this contract," said Anwar. "This could be disastrous for the SNP if they refuse to address this issue, or give some mealy-mouthed response like the Labour Party would have done.

"Until now, the party had an outstanding record. The SNP must not throw away its mandate. If the SNP doesn't listen, then it will have a shock in store for it. People are battle-ready from dealing with Labour and punishing them.

"If Salmond fails to do that, he can no longer chase the Muslim vote, the human rights vote or the anti-war vote."

The Scottish Islamic Foundation (SIF), which is closely linked to the SNP and has been heavily funded by the nationalist party, has written to the government calling for the contract to be cancelled. SIF is headed by SNP parliamentary candidate Osama Saeed. A senior member of SIF, when asked if the SNP risked squandering the Muslim vote, said that "it depends what the party does from here". The SIF member said the government's response so far had been "unimpressive".

Pete Cannell, co-secretary of the Stop The War Coalition in Scotland, said the SNP's position was inconsistent with their previous rhetoric and added that the party had taken a decision which appalled most voters. "We hope it is ignorance rather than malice that led to this decision. If that's the case then there is no obstacle to getting it changed," he added.

SNP MSP Bashir Ahmad, Scotland's first Muslim MSP, said: "The SNP, and in particular the first minister, are recognised as close friends within the Muslim community. They have stood with them in consistently opposing the Labour-led Iraq war and standing up for our civil liberties ."

A senior SNP spokesman added: "The contract was negotiated and agreed by the General Register Office for Scotland, who could not take unproven allegations into account during the procurement process. The SNP's record is clear and consistent in opposing Labour's illegal war in Iraq and dumping of a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the Clyde."

CACI has consistently said that the claims against the firm are "not substantiated by any evidence or proof ... and ... the allegation remains unfounded". CACI insists that it holds itself "to the highest ethical standards".