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SACC writes to Kenny MacAskill on rendition

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
Thursday 14 June 2007

Human Rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) has written to Holyrood Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill calling for an investigation into fears that Scottish airports have been used illegally in connection with CIA "extraordinary rendition" flights. SACC is also pressing for urgent action to close the loopholes that have allowed suspect flights to land without any checks being made on them. Copies of the letter have been sent to First Minister Alex Salmond and to Jamie Hepburn MSP (SNP), who write to Kenny MacAskill last month to ask for an inquiry into rendition flights.

The group says that there should also be a criminal investigation by the Scottish Police. It says that the investigation carried out in England and Wales under the auspices of Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) hasn't "even come close" to meeting this need. Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, recently criticised ACPO for rushing out "cursory" findings" as part of a "spin" operation.

The government and the police have repeatedly said that there isn't enough evidence for them to take action. But SACC says it is "very likely that important evidence is already known to members of the British intelligence agencies." It says it "would expect that any police investigation or other inquiry into rendition would find it necessary to interview officers from MI5 and/or MI6."

The group also urges the Scottish Executive to ask the US administration for information. They point out that the Westminster government has so far refused to do this.

SACC is dismissive of suggestions that the controversy is enough by itself to deter the CIA from using Scottish airports in connection with rendition. It says "we think that the comprehensive stonewalling by both the Westminster government and the police would suggest to CIA personnel that there are few safer places in Europe for them to break their journey."

SACC is calling on the Scottish Executive to press the police to take action to stop this happening. Campaigners accept that there may be difficulties in setting up a watertight system and that some of the steps required would fall outside the powers of the Scottish Executive. But they say "the Scottish Police could readily make arrangements that would give them a good chance of obtaining advance notice that a suspect plane was on the way." They point out that a suspect plane that landed earlier this month at RAF Mildenhall "was easily tracked and logged by amateurs."

SACC has also taken up a suggestion from Jamie Hepburn MSP that the Scottish Executive should pay particular attention to airports belonging to the Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), a company wholly owned by Scottish ministers. Suspect aircraft have been logged at Inverness and Wick - airports owned by HIAL. SACC suggests that the Scottish Executive could put in place a policy similar to one adopted recently by Derry City Council. The Council has agreed an 'anti-rendition' policy drafted by Amnesty International for use at the council-owned City of Derry Airport.

Full Text of the Letter to Kenny MacAskill

13 June 2007
cc Alex Salmond, First Minister
Jamie Hepburn MSP

I am writing on behalf of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities to ask that you take steps to address speculation over the involvement of Scottish airports in "extraordinary rendition." SACC believes that there is an urgent need to try to establish whether or not Scottish airports have been used to facilitate either the illegal transfer of prisoners or the movement of personnel or materials linked to rendition, illegal detention, torture and other human rights abuses. We also believe -whatever the facts about past cases - that there is an urgent need to develop procedures to prevent abuse of this sort occurring in the future.

The Scottish National Party has in the past been prominent in exposing evidence pointing to Scottish involvement in this traffic and we assume that you are as anxious as we are to ensure that the matter is properly dealt with. This is a matter of great public concern and we will be releasing the contents of the present letter to the press.

I believe that Jamie Hepburn MSP wrote to you on 22 May to press for an immediate inquiry. We would like to add our support to this request. Jamie Hepburn was one of a number of MSPs who attended an informal but very helpful meeting with SACC in the Parliament on 24 May.

There have already been a number of related inquiries, notably by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. But we think that an inquiry of the sort suggested by Jamie Hepburn would provide an important opportunity to consider any new evidence and to look at specifically Scottish issues. An inquiry set up under the authority of the Scottish Executive would signal to the world that Scotland wishes to be part of the global effort to re-assert international law, and might also give access to new kinds of evidence.

The difficulties confronting any attempt at honest investigation and effective remedy are well-known. We would not wish, at this stage, to be too prescriptive about the best way forward. However, we would like to use this opportunity to draw your attention to a number of specific points.

A. Investigation of suspected past abuses

  1. The CIA is known to engage in crimes of the sort alleged (and US officials have said so), and its aircraft have been arriving in Scotland in extremely suspicious circumstances. So we think that, in addition to any inquiry, there should be a criminal investigation by the Scottish Police. We do not think that the "investigation" carried out in England and Wales under the auspices of Association of Chief Police Offices even comes close to meeting this need. Nor do we accept the view (expressed, for example, when the matter was debated in the Scottish Parliament in December 2005) that it would be inappropriate for the Scottish Executive to press the Scottish Police to take action.
  2. SACC wrote to Strathclyde Police in June 2006 on this matter. The Police told us there was insufficient evidence to justify an investigation and offered to take action if further evidence could be produced. We found this response rather surprising, having always believed that it was the job of the police to search for evidence. But we wrote to the Police again in August drawing attention to an incident in October 2001. On that occasion, witnesses saw a man called Jamil Qasim Saeed Muhammad being bundled onto a Gulfstream V aeroplane at Karachi airport. The plane, registered to a CIA front company, flew him to Jordan. He has not been heard from since. The following day, it flew to Prestwick airport to refuel, then to Dulles airport, Washington DC. This incident has been documented by Amnesty International. We have received no reply to our letter. Former MSP Chris Ballance has also written to Strathclyde Police, and received a reply in similar terms to the reply to our June 2006 letter. He lodged a Freedom of Information request for material related to the Police decision to reply as they did. This was refused.
  3. Much has been made of the lack of firm evidence relating to rendition. We think it very likely that important evidence is already known to members of the British intelligence agencies (MI5 and MI6). It is striking that Westminster ministers have never said publicly that they have asked for information from these agencies, and that the former head of MI5, Eliza Mannigham-Buller, refused to speak to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in this connection. Craig Murray has said in testimony given to the European Parliament that there is an agreement that the CIA and MI6 share 100% of information, and that this agreement is never breached. There are many documented connections between British intelligence agencies and the rendition programme. Rendition victims have reported the presence of MI5 officers at their interrogation at overseas locations; MI5 have not denied this. Rendition victims have also reported lines of questioning that indicate the involvement of British agencies. Finally, we remark that we would think it odd if MI5 were to take no interest in the possibility of covert activities by a foreign intelligence agency - albeit one considered friendly - on British soil. For all these reasons we would expect that any police investigation or other inquiry into rendition would find it necessary to interview officers from MI5 and/or MI6.
  4. Care would need to be exercised in the conduct of any police investigation in order to avoid conflicts of interest, given the institutional links between regional police forces, the Special Branches, and MI5.
  5. We suggest, speculatively, that it is at least possible that members of the intelligence agencies and other officials outside these agencies may be aware of important information and may be disposed to disclose it, but are prevented from doing so by the Official Secrets Act. Evidence that would otherwise be unobtainable might be elicited were such people to be called as witnesses in a criminal trial or called to give evidence to an inquiry with powers to subpoena witnesses.
  6. The Westminster government has pointedly avoided asking the US administration whether it has used British facilities in connection with rendition. Foreign affairs are outside the authority of the Scottish Executive. But we see nothing to prevent the Scottish Executive asking the US for information about the activities of US personnel in Scotland.
  7. The Nineteenth report of Westminster's Joint Committee on Human Rights, published in May 2006, said that "whether a public inquiry is necessary should be determined in light of the extent to which inquiries by the Government leads to the publication of the detailed information required." Whatever merit this position may have had at the time, it should now be clear that further delay can only give comfort to the torturers. We need an inquiry to be set up in Scotland and granted any available legal powers that would help it to do its job effectively, fairly and transparently.
  8. We share the widely-held view that the Inquiries Act 2005 would be better called "The Official Cover-Up Act 2005." We do not believe that an inquiry held under the terms of this Act could command any confidence.

B. Prevention of future abuse

  1. There is no doubt at all that that the US has carried out renditions in the past, nor is there any doubt that this is contrary to British and international law. US officials have also said quite clearly that the US will continue to carry out renditions as it sees fit. There is currently nothing whatever to prevent aircraft connected to rendition from using Scottish airports, should they choose to do so.
  2. There appears to be a widely-held view that this issue has already attracted so much publicity that the US will be deterred from routing aircraft linked to rendition through Britain. We do not share this view. On the contrary, we think that the comprehensive stonewalling by both the Westminster government and the police would suggest to CIA personnel that there are few safer places in Europe for them to break their journey. The report (Mail on Sunday, 10 June) that an aircraft previously linked to rendition landed recently at RAF Mildenhall reinforces our point.
  3. George Bush said in September 2006 that the US had previously made use of secret prisons in Europe, but that that these were empty at the time of his speech. Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty says, in a report issued last week, that some key aspects of the CIA's High Value Detainee (HVD) programme - including the use of secret prisons in Europe - appear to have come to a close. But he also says that some form of CIA detention and interrogation is likely to continue. The closure of "black sites" in Europe does not necessarily reduce the likelihood of aircraft making stopovers in Europe for purposes linked to illegal detention. A prisoner was transferred from secret CIA custody to Guantanamo Bay as recently as April 2007, showing that the "ghost plane" system is still operating. A report (Off the Record: U.S. Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the "War on Terror") published last week by six leading human rights organisations documents 39 people detained by the US who are still missing. It shows that "proxy detention" has been used to empty CIA "secret sites" and that the system "sweeps up low-level detainees and even involves the detention of the wives and children of the'disappeared.'"
  4. For all these reasons, we think that there is an urgent need to plug the loopholes that leave Scottish airports open to aircraft involved in illegal activities. The cliche that "justice delayed is justice denied" seems especially appropriate at present.
  5. The international laws applicable to suspected rendition aircraft are complex and interpretations differ. The key points appear to be:
    1. Civil aircraft must be permitted to fly through to fly through UK airspace and to stop for refuelling and similar purposes. They may be searched and documents may be checked. Aircraft and people on board them are generally subject to UK law.
    2. State aircraft require prior authorisation to fly through UK airspace or land at UK airports. Normally they cannot be searched except by agreement, although there is some question that the international prohibition on torture might take precedence over this immunity.
    3. Aircraft presenting themselves as civil aircraft cannot then claim immunity as state aircraft.
  6. We think that the best available outline of the steps that need to be taken is to be found in the Nineteenth report of Westminster's Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee says:

    "Where there are credible allegations arising from previous records that a particular civil aircraft transiting UK airspace has been involved in renditions, and where the aircraft is travelling to or from a country known to practise torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, it should be required to land. Where such an aircraft lands at a UK airport for refuelling or similar purposes, it should be required to provide a full list of all those on board, both staff and passengers. On landing, it should be boarded and searched by the police, and the identity of all those on board verified. Wherever appropriate, a criminal investigation should be initiated. Where an aircraft suspected of involvement in extraordinary renditions identifies itself as a state aircraft, it should not be permitted to transit UK airspace, in the absence of permission for UK authorities to search the aircraft. We consider that these steps are not only permitted by the current law, but required to ensure full compliance with the Convention Against Torture."

    The recommendation is unfortunately preceded in the JCHR report by the phrase "for the future."
  7. Some steps in the recommendation quoted above fall outside the powers devolved to the Scottish Executive. However, we believe that even an incomplete application of the recommendation would greatly reduce the chances of Scottish airports being used to facilitate crimes. CIA aircraft are not especially secretive. The plane that landed at RAF Mildenhall recently was easily tracked and logged by amateurs. We believe that the Scottish Police could readily make arrangements that would give them a good chance of obtaining advance notice that a suspect plane was on the way. The options then available to them would depend upon whether the plane represented itself as a civil or state aircraft.
  8. Where a civil aircraft falls under suspicion, we believe that the police would have all the powers necessary to carry out a full investigation.
  9. At a meeting arranged by SACC at the US Consulate in Edinburgh in January 2006, the Consul Cecile Shea said (in apparent contradiction of a report published in the Scotsman the previous month) that the US would make no objection to US aircraft being searched where there were reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity. She drew no distinction between civil and state aircraft. So it seems that the Scottish Police could anticipate a favourable response were they to ask to search a US state aircraft suspected of involvement in rendition or related crimes. The meeting was attended by two MSPs as well as a number of campaigners.
  10. Jamie Hepburn points out in his letter to you that some of the allegations refer to airports that are effectively under the ownership of the Scottish Executive. We draw your attention to a recent decision by Derry City Council to adopt an 'anti-rendition' policy drafted by Amnesty International for use at the council-owned City of Derry Airport. We hope that the Scottish Executive will be able to do something similar for airports under its control.

I hope you will be able to consider the issues raised in this letter. As I have tried to emphasise, we believe the matter to be an urgent one.

We are currently in ignorance mainly because the Westminster government and the police have resolutely avoided asking the right questions. We hope that you will be just as resolute in insisting that these questions be asked and answered.

As Jamie Hepburn says in his letter to you, "if we are to live in a just country then justice must be seen to be done."