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Jack Straw is shirking his duty

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
Wednesday 8 March 2006, for immediate release

As evidence of British complicity in US torture flights continues to mount, Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Central Ayrshire, has made public a letter from Jack Straw, dated 21 December 2005, in which the Foreign Secretary flatly refuses to take any steps to investigate British involvement in rendition. Instead, the Foreign Secretary repeats demonstrably misleading assurances from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The letter concludes with the remark "see you in the tea room."

The release of the letter comes as civil liberties campaigners call for vigils next Sunday at Edinburgh airport and at Prestwick airport, in Mr Donohoe's constituency. The vigils are being held in protest at the continuing inaction by the British and Scottish authorities over suspicions that aircraft using our airfields are involved in rendition. In an extraordinary email message circulated to hundreds of people around Scotland, Mr Donohoe says: "as the local Member of Parliament you can rest assured that I have left no stone unturned on this subject and feel the need for a vigil to be lessened as a consequence."

In his letter to Mr Donohoe, the Foreign Secretary repeats assurances from Condoleezza Rice that:

"the United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture," and "the United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country where we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."

But Condoleezza Rice has made it clear on a number of occasions that the US sends detainees abroad for interrogation by local agencies in countries known internationally for torturing people. This would almost certainly put the US in breach of international law even if none of the US detainees had actually been tortured.

In fact there is growing evidence, based on the testimony of rendition survivors, that detainees have been tortured horrifically. In February this year a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, attempted to bring a lawsuit against the Bush administration for sending him to Syria in 2002, where he says he was tortured for almost a year. The case came before Brooklyn District Court but was dismissed by Judge David Trager on the grounds that it could endanger relations between the US and Canada. In giving his ruling, the judge appears to have accepted that the alleged torture took place and to have thought it likely that US, and possibly Canadian, responsibility would be established if the case were to proceed.

It also a matter of record that the US has transported detainees to Bagram Air Base and to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation. A large number of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are currently on hunger strike and are being force fed. The application of this medical procedure without the detainees' consent is a clear abuse of their rights, and the the US admits that it is occurring. Former detainees have provided abundant evidence of other forms of torture, some of it corroborated by the testimony of former Guantanamo Bay personnel. In a report issued on 16 February, UN human rights experts cited evidence of torture and inhuman treatment amongst their reasons for demanding the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Former detainee Moazzam Begg gives an extensive account of his mistreatment in his book "Enemy Combatant", launched his week. Mr Begg will be meeting MSPs at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 16th March.

Chris Ballance MSP (Green), who is supporting next Sunday's vigil at Prestwick airport, says: "I find the CIA practice of picking up people from the streets, abducting them without any legal process and holding them indefinitely in centres like Guantanamo Bay abhorrent. The repeated reports that some of them are tortured en route, if true, are even more barbaric. I am even more angry that Britain should play any role in permitting these activities." The police have repeatedly stonewalled requests from Chris Ballance that they should investigate suspicions that Scottish airports are being used to facilitate rendition.

There can be no reasonable doubt that the US transports detainees to countries where they are at risk of torture. Evidence that torture is the intended outcome is very strong. At the very least, there is a case to answer. In these circumstances it is extraordinary that the Foreign Secretary, like one of the three wise monkeys, should simply repeat Condoleezza Rice's affirmations of innocence. And it is even more extraordinary that Brian Donohoe MP should think that in eliciting a declaration of inaction from Jack Straw he has "left no stone unturned."

Mr Donohoe refers in his message to a written Parliamentary answer dated 10 January 2006 in which it is reported that foreign office staff have searched their records and have found no US requests since 1998 for permission to "render" a detainee through UK territory or airspace. This is very far from proving that British territory has not been used in this way, or that reasonable steps have been taken to prevent it.

Jack Straw says in his letter that "I have no reason to believe that suspected terrorists have been rendited (sic) through UK territory or airspace during the the Bush administration." But there is growing evidence that that unmarked CIA-owned aircraft use British and Scottish airfields, and that many of them have itineraries that link known interrogation centres. Jack Straw makes it quite clear that he intends to take none of the steps that might allow him to discover whether these aircraft are involved in rendition. He says: "we have no intention of checking every flight transiting the UK which may have some connections with the US government." But he doesn't suggest any more selective approach to investigating suspect flights.

Britain has a clear responsibility under international law to ensure that it is not complicit in torture. The UN Convention Against Torture says that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." It says that "no State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture," and that "for the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights." And it requires not only that acts of torture must be made illegal under domestic law, but that "the same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture."

Jack Straw's letter makes it clear that he intends to simply ignore the UN Convention Against Torture. He should resign and make way for someone who will take Britain's international responsibilities seriously.

Scotland Against Criminalising Communities will, in any case, leave no stone unturned in trying to ensure that our country isn't exploited to facilitate torture. And we mean it.


Notes for editors

  1. Vigils against British complicity in rendition will be held at 12.30pm, Sunday 12th March at Prestwick and Edinburgh airports. Rosemary Byrne MSP (SSP) and Chris Ballance MSP (Green) will be speaking at the Prestwick vigil. Jack Straw's letter to Brian Donohoe can be found at Straw letter page 1
    and Straw letter page 2
  2. On Monday 6 March, the government admitted that CIA-owned aircraft had landed at RAF Brize Norton and RAF Northolt between October 2004 and May 2004. One aircraft made repeated journeys between Northolt and Tripoli. Another had flown via Norholt from Islamabad to Washington, from Amman to Shannon and from Dohaa to Glasgow. See the Guardian, Tuesday 7 March
    Guardian report
  3. Mahar Arar's lawsuit against the Bush administration is reported in the Toronto Star, 17 February 2006.
  4. Enemy Combatant: a British Muslim's Journey to Guantanamo and Back by Moazzam Begg with Victoria Britain was launched by Free Press (Simon and Schuster) on 6 March at £18.99. Moazzam Begg will be speaking to MSPs at a meeting to be held in the Scottish Parliament at 12 noon on Thursday 16 March. The meeting is being hosted by the Parliamentary Group of the Scottish Socialist Party. Moazzam Begg will be also be speaking at two public meetings in Edinburgh: 6.30pm Wednesday 15 March at St John's Church, Princes St, Edinburgh. Philippe Sands QC (author of Lawless World ) will also be speaking, and Ruth Wishart will be in the chair. Organised by Amnesty International 7.00pm, Thursday 16 March Appleton Tower, Edinburgh University, George Square, Edinburgh. Other speakers include human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar and Chris Nineham of the UK Stop The War Coalition. Organised by Edinburgh Stop The War Coalition, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, the Islamic Society of Edinburgh University and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign.