LONDON // The British government and its security agencies were accused by a high-powered parliamentary committee yesterday of turning a blind eye to the torture abroad of Islamic terror suspects. The highly critical report from the committee of senior MPs and peers also attacked the government for keeping the UK in a "permanent state of emergency" since the September 11 attacks in the US.
Although ministers who gave evidence before the joint parliamentary committee on human rights insisted that individual liberties "underpinned" British counter-terrorism work, the committee's report said that these rights were "all too often squeezed out by the imperatives of national security and public safety". The report added: "Since September 11, 2001, the government has continuously justified many of its counter-terrorism measures on the basis that there is a public emergency threatening the life of the nation.
"We question whether the country has been in such a state for more than eight years. This permanent state of emergency inevitably has a deleterious effect on public debate about the justification for counter-terrorism measures." On torture, the report criticises ministers for giving evasive answers and says that the UK's narrow definition of what constitutes complicity in torture has no basis in law.
"This is no defence to the charge of complicity in torture," says the report, but it adds that both the foreign and home secretaries, and the head of MI5 - the UK's domestic security service - appeared almost to condone it. "They came very close to saying that, at least in the wake of September 11, the lesser of two evils was the receipt and use of intelligence which was known, or should have been known, to carry a risk that it might have been obtained under torture, in order to protect the UK public from possible terrorist attack."
Committee members said that they were particularly concerned by the case of Binyam Mohamed, 31, an Ethiopian national living in Britain who was arrested as a suspected terrorist in Karachi in 2002. For the next two years, Mr Mohamed says he was tortured by US agents in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan, before being taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2004. He was released last year without charge. It has been claimed that, although British agents played no physical role in the torture, they helped direct the questioning of Mr Mohamed.
"The systematic receipt of information obtained by torture is a form of acquiescence, or tacit consent," says the report. "The courts have found that MI5 officers passed questions to Mr Mohamed's interrogators and received reports on his treatment. "The case for setting up an independent inquiry into the allegations of complicity in torture is now irresistible." The committee, which took evidence from ministers including the foreign secretary, David Miliband, and the home secretary, Alan Johnson, said that the "evasive answers" on the question of torture gave the inference that it was often regarded as being "the lesser of two evils".
The committee also questioned the continuing need for the law that allows terror suspects to be detained for 28 days without charge. The government has wanted to increase the period to at least 42 days since the 7/7 suicide bombings on London's public transport system killed 52 passengers in 2005. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, has recently undertaken to publish a new set of guidelines on how the intelligence services should handle interrogations, but the committee said that it wanted to see the old rules in force when Mr Mohamed was being tortured.
The government will formally respond to the committee's criticism at a later date but a spokesman for the Home Office said yesterday: "We are pleased that the committee recognises our commitment to human rights, which are at the heart of our counter-terrorism legislation. "The threat to the UK from terrorism remains real and serious and we are committed to doing all we can to protect our nation's security while protecting individual liberties using the proper safeguards."