US Consul would accept police checks on rendition flights

Cecile Shea, US Consul in Scotland, said today that her statement to the Scotsman newspaper last month that British officials would not be allowed to check US aircraft for involvement in "extraordinary rendition" had been misunderstood. She said that she had been responding to a question from the Scotsman about blanket inspections of all American aircraft, but she would of course not object to police carrying out investigations on specific aircraft where there were reasonable grounds to suspect involvement in crime. She made it clear that she recognised that any decision to carry out such investigations was a matter for the British authorities.

Her comments came during discussions held at the US Consulate in Edinburgh with an eight-strong delegation representing campaigners opposed to extraordinary rendition. The delegation was organised by Scotland Against Criminalising Communities and Edinburgh Stop The War Coalition. Delegates included Frances Curran MSP (SSP) and Mark Ballard MSP (Green). Fiona Hyslop MSP (SNP) gave her support to a letter presented by the delegation, but was unable to join the meeting. The letter was supported by about 140 other concerned individuals, including human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar. A copy of the letter has been sent to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Consul accepted that some mistakes may have been made in the past, but denied that prisoners transferred abroad under "extraordinary rendition" were now subject to torture, or that this was the US intention. She emphasised that US officials had made unequivocal statements to this effect. But campaigners insisted that sending prisoners for interrogation in countries known to practise torture puts them at risk of torture whatever assurances are given, and that this is an offence under British and international law. Ms Shea appeared to acknowledge that this is indeed an issue.

She insisted that the US respected international law and used extraordinary rendition only where normal legal processes were inoperable, for example because suspects were living in countries that had no extradition arrangement with the US. Delegates argued that legal processes cannot be treated as optional. They said that if suspects cannot be apprehended through due process, they should not be apprehended at all. They also drew the Consul's attention to the case of Jamma El-Banna, a British resident currently held at Guantanamo Bay. He was arrested at Gatwick airport, questioned by British police under anti-Terrorist legislation, then allowed to continue his journey to the Gambia where he was arrested by the local authorities before being handed over to the US and eventually taken to Guantanamo Bay. Campaigners argued that this looked very like a deliberate use of extra-legal methods even though the suspect had originally been in British jurisdiction and a method involving due legal process was apparently available.

Cecile Shea was unable to set out the processes involved in "extraordinary rendition." She undertook to pass the views expressed by the delegation to the US Department of State.

A meeting like this should have been held by the Scottish Executive. Instead, the job was done by a group of ordinary citizens backed by a handful of MSPs who take their duty to represent the people of Scotland seriously. Scotland can be proud of itself; the Executive cannot.

Notes for Editors

  1. Chris Ballance MSP (Green) tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament last year calling on the Lord Advocate to "instruct the police to conduct searches of planes landing at Scottish airports suspected of being operated by the CIA to ensure that no one aboard is being tortured, being transported in an inhumane manner or being illegally detained against their will."
  2. Frances Curran MSP (SSP) moved a resolution on rendition for debate in the Scottish parliament on 23 December 2005. The Parliament passed the resolution with an amendment that diluted it to little more than an affirmation that the Parliament abhorred torture.
  3. Cecile Shea's interview with the Scotsman was published on 19 December 2005 following protests held at Scottish airports - US Slams "frenzy of paranoia over prisoner flights but rules out any British inspections by Gethin Chamberlain. The interview was very different in tone from today's discussions at the Consulate. Cecile Shea was reported as saying that allegations concerning rendition were "baseless" and that "whether or not people respect or appreciate it today or yesterday or right at this very second, we really can't waste too much energy being concerned about that."
  4. Campaigners held a vigil outside the US Consulate in Edinburgh on Saturday 14 January 2006

Text of letter follows:

Extraordinary Rendition
Open Letter coordinated by Edinburgh Stop The War Coalition and Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

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.