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UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

Today is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It was determined in December 1997,  with a view to the total eradication of torture and the effective functioning of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”).

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Law Society Human Rights Solicitor of the year 2019

Convention Against Torture

CAT entered into force on 26 June 1987 and was ratified by the UK in December 1988. A fundamental aim of the Convention is to “make more effective the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world”. 

It is one of many legal instruments to which the UK is subject1 which prohibit torture in all circumstances and impose obligations on the UK in this regard. So, more than 30 years after ratifying CAT, it is disappointing that the UK still seeks to shield its own complicity in torture from judicial scrutiny.
 

The Belhaj Case

Take the case of my clients, Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar. They spent almost seven years seeking a public apology from the UK government for its role in their torture and rendition. When it came, the apology was fulsome, but it took a long struggle to get there.

I first met Mr Belhaj in Tripoli in October 2011, on the day his nemesis, Colonel Gaddafi, died. At that time, Mr Belhaj had recently learned that the UK  -  then helping him and others overthrow Gaddafi – had been complicit in his and his then pregnant wife’s unlawful rendition to Libya some seven years earlier.

In 2004 Mr Belhaj, an opponent of Gaddafi living outside Libya, was rendered - first to a CIA secret detention facility in Thailand where he was tortured – and then, hooded and shackled to the floor of a plane, to Libya where he was detained for six years and tortured, before eventually being released in 2010.

Ms Boudchar, a Moroccan national and then four months pregnant, was subjected to cruel and degrading treatment in the CIA detention facility in Thailand, before being taped on to a stretcher and loaded on to a plane bound for Libya with her husband, where she was also detained. She was released just three weeks before giving birth, by which time her health, and that of her baby, was in a precarious state.

Following the fall of the Gaddafi regime, documents were discovered in the abandoned headquarters of the regime’s intelligence agency implicating the UK in the couple’s rendition. These included faxes apparently sent from MI6 to the Libyan intelligence services in March 2004, pointing them to the couple’s whereabouts, hatching a plan with the CIA to render the couple to Libya and then taking credit for passing on the intelligence which led to the delivery of this valuable ‘cargo’ to the Gaddafi regime.

Since our first meeting, Mr Belhaj was adamant that he wanted a public apology from the UK Government for its role in his and his wife’s ordeal.  Apologies play a vital role in the recovery of torture survivors. However, despite the cache of documents, it took a long legal battle – lengthier than Mr Belhaj’s detention in Libya -  to achieve that result.

For years, the UK Government, sought to avoid any judicial – or public – scrutiny of the allegations. It sought to have the case struck out of court for fear of causing embarrassment to the USA. However, in January 2017, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the case must be allowed to proceed in the English courts.

The Government then invoked the Kafka-esque world of ‘Closed Material Procedures’, enabling it to rely on ‘Closed Defences’ and secret documents, which neither my clients, us their lawyers, nor the public would see. That did not feel much like justice or accountability.

Then eventually, after another year of legal wrangling, on 10 May, 2018, the Government gave Mr Belhaj and Ms Boudchar the unreserved and public apology they had so long sought for its role in their ‘detention, rendition and suffering’.

While the couple withdrew their legal claims, having achieved what they had wanted, that should not have been the end of the matter.

A Judge-led Inquiry

Almost a decade ago, on 6 July, 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the establishment of an Inquiry to “…look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees, held by other countries, that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11.”2

This followed a wave of claims against the UK for its alleged complicity in torture arising from its involvement in the CIA’s rendition programme.

However, the two Inquiries which followed have been incomplete and boycotted by many NGOs and complainants for lacking teeth and transparency. Despite these shortcomings, both the  Report of the Detainee Inquiry published in December 2013 and the Intelligence and Security Committee (‘ISC’) Reports published in June 20183 raised concerns about the UK’s past and current practices.

A judge-led inquiry, with teeth to compel witnesses to give evidence and not held behind closed doors, would allow the transparency and scrutiny required. Such an inquiry is being called for in a legal claim brought by the NGO Reprieve and two MPs.

Instead of continuing to resist the claim, what better way for the Government to mark this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture than to concede the necessity for such an inquiry, so that lessons may be learned and we can finally turn the page.

 

1Such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights
2The Report of the Detainee Inquiry, December 2013
3Intelligence & Security Committee of Parliament: Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition 2001-2010 and Intelligence & Security Committee of Parliament: Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition Current Issues, June 2018

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