British will continue torture probe
LONDON // The British government will press ahead with an inquiry into claims that Muslim terror suspects were tortured overseas, despite a boycott by civil-rights groups and victims' lawyers.
The independent inquiry, announced last year under the chairmanship of retired judge Sir Peter Gibson, has yet to get underway because of legal proceedings.
But, on Thursday, the main groups alleging that British intelligence officers were complicit in the torture abroad - including at Guantanamo Bay - announced they would not be taking part.
Their main concerns, they said, centred on the secrecy surrounding the hearings and the fact the final decision on what could be made public rests in the hands of the cabinet secretary, the government's top civil servant.
A further concern was that former detainees and their lawyers would not be permitted to question intelligence officials.
"If this inquiry proceeds without the participation of the victims it will be nothing more than a waste of time and public money," said Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human-rights group Liberty.
"Until a credible, independent process is established this shameful chapter of the war on terror continues.
"A year ago, the government accepted praise for the promise of a public inquiry. But the result, involving sidelining victims and a presumption of secrecy, is nothing of the kind."
The government announced last month that it would be the final arbiter of what could be made public, prompting this week's letter from 10 groups, including Amnesty International, Liberty and Reprieve, that they would not now be submitting any testimony or attend any further planning meetings with the inquiry team.
Lawyers representing former Guantanamo Bay detainees also said they would boycott the inquiry because there was "no comprehension on the part of the government of the gravity of the crimes which representatives of the state may have committed".
The prime minister, David Cameron, announced the inquiry a little more than a year ago following claims of torture by Binyam Mohamed, 33, a British resident from Ethiopia who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicion of fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
He spent almost seven years in captivity and claims he was tortured under the direction of questions from British intelligence officers in Pakistan, Morocco, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. In 2009, he was released by the Americans without charge.
A number of other former detainees have since brought legal actions against the British government, claiming they were tortured with the knowledge of the UK's two main intelligence branches, MI5 and MI6.
There have also been claims of Britain being complicit in the "extraordinary rendition" by the US of terror suspects since the September 11 attacks.
Last November, the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, admitted that secret compensation payments had been made to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees - either UK subjects or residents - to avoid protracted court action, which, he estimated, could cost the taxpayer £50 million (Dh299m) in legal fees alone.
Mr Clarke also said that out-of-court settlements would enable the security services to concentrate on the business of protecting the country from terrorists, rather than being distracted by lengthy court battles, and would enable the inquiry team to begin its work.
That, though, has still not been possible because of continuing legal proceedings and police inquiries. Its value must now be in doubt because of the boycott decision.
However, a spokeswoman for the inquiry insisted yesterday that it would still go ahead. "The inquiry regrets the decision announced by the solicitors to the detainees and the NGOs not to participate in the inquiry," she said.
"The inquiry's parameters were laid down by the prime minister and made public on July 6, 2010. No one has challenged in court proceedings the legality of the inquiry.
"The inquiry will go ahead. It will examine the relevant documentation held by government. It will hear the key government witnesses."
She added that testimony from detainees and human-rights groups would still be "welcomed".
But the campaign groups say that it is their "strong view" that inquiry does not have the "credibility or transparency" to establish the truth about the torture allegations.
Tim Cooke-Hurle, who works for the prisoners' activist group Reprieve, said: "By ignoring the concerns of torture victims and major human-rights organisations, the government risks a pointless whitewash."
Tara Lyle, from Amnesty International UK, added: "This is a desperately needed inquiry into extremely serious allegations, but the arrangements for it are secretive, unfair and deeply flawed."
Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM