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Government Policy (Torture Overseas)

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Wright.)

Before I call the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) to speak, I want to advise him that he should not refer to cases in relation to which legal proceedings are active.

Four years ago today, this country suffered a terrible atrocity at the hands of terrorists: 52 people were killed and many more horribly injured. I stood at the Dispatch Box that day and spoke of the need to face down this barbarism. In the subsequent weeks and months, I was proud of the calm and just way that the ordinary British citizen dealt with this assault and of the comparative absence of people trying to make scapegoats of the ordinary, decent Muslim community. I was proud of the courage, sense of honour, tolerance and justice of our citizens at home.

I am afraid that I cannot be so complimentary about the actions of our Government abroad. In the last year, there have been at least 15 cases of British citizens or British residents claiming to be tortured by foreign intelligence agencies with the knowledge, complicity and, in some cases, presence of British intelligence officers. One case—that of Binyam Mohammed—has been referred to the police by the Attorney-General, which implies that there is at least a prima facie case to answer. The most salient others include Moazzamm Begg, Tariq Mahmoud, Salahuddin Amin and Rashid Rauf, all in Pakistan; Jamil Rahman in Bangladesh; Alam Ghafoor in United Arab Emirates; and Azhar Khan and others in Egypt.

For each case, the Government have denied complicity, but at the same time fiercely defended the secrecy of their actions, making it impossible to put the full facts in the public domain, despite the clear public interest in doing so. Although the combined circumstantial evidence of complicity in all these cases is overwhelming, it has not so far been possible—because of the Government’s improper use of state secrecy to cover up the evidence—to establish absolutely clear sequences of cause and effect.

In the case I am about to describe, we can follow the entire chain of events from original suspicion, through active encouragement of the Pakistani authorities to arrest and through the subsequent collaboration between UK and Pakistani agencies. This is the case of Rangzieb Ahmed, a convicted terrorist, whose treatment I can describe in some detail.

As the House will realise, the account I am about to relay comes from several sources. I cannot properly give my sources, given the vindictive attitude of this Government, particularly the Foreign Office, to whistleblowers. Indeed, in this case of Rangzieb Ahmed, the authorities were so paranoid that they threatened to arrest a journalist for reporting facts stated in open court. Nevertheless, although I am prevented from naming my sources, I can say that I am confident of these facts beyond reasonable doubt. I will not, of course, disclose any names, or anything that discloses intelligence agency techniques—other than torture—or other issues that threaten national security.

I should say that the individual whose case I am going to describe is not someone for whom I have any natural sympathy. He is a convicted—indeed, self-confessed—terrorist. So what I am talking about today is just as much about defending our own civilised standards as it is about deploring what was done to this man in the name of defending our country.

In 2005-06, Rangzieb Ahmed was a suspected terrorist who was kept under surveillance for about a year before leaving the country to go first to Dubai and on a subsequent trip to Pakistan. During that time, evidence was collected against him, on the basis of which he was later convicted. Let me repeat that point, as it is very important to my subsequent argument—during that time, evidence was collected, on the basis of which he was subsequently convicted.

Despite the authorities having that evidence, he was—astonishingly—not arrested but instead allowed to leave the country. To understand how odd this decision was, we should remember that this was only a year after the tragedy of 7/7, after which agencies were criticised for allowing terrorist suspects to leave the country to go to Pakistan. Since they knew he was leaving, since they knew where he was going, and since they had more than enough evidence to arrest him, allowing him to leave was clearly deliberate. That the authorities knew his itinerary is demonstrated by the fact that he was kept under surveillance when he was in Dubai. He later went on to Pakistan, where the Pakistani authorities were warned of his arrival by the British Government. The British intelligence agencies wrote to their opposite numbers in Pakistan—the members of the directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence—suggesting that they arrest him. I use the word “suggest” rather than “request” or “recommend” because of the peculiar language of the ISI’s communication No doubt the Minister can confirm that for himself by asking to see the record.

We also know that the intelligence officer who wrote to the Pakistanis did so in full knowledge of the normal methods used by the ISI against terrorist suspects that it holds. That is unsurprising, as it is common public knowledge in Pakistan. The officer would therefore be aware that “suggesting” arrest was equivalent to “suggesting” torture.

Rangzieb Ahmed was arrested by the ISI on 20 August 2006. Once he was taken into custody in Pakistan by the ISI, the Manchester police and MI5 together created a list of questions to be put to him. MI5 arranged for those questions to be given to the ISI.

Rangzieb Ahmed was viciously tortured by the ISI. He says, among other things, that he was beaten with wooden staves the size of cricket stumps and whipped with a 3 ft length of tyre rubber nailed to a wooden handle, and that three fingernails were removed from his left hand. There is a dispute between Ahmed and British intelligence officers about exactly when his fingernails were removed, but an independent pathologist employed by the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that it happened during the period when he was in Pakistani custody.

Rangzieb was asked questions, under torture, about the UK by ISI officers. He claims that he saw “UK/Pakistan Secret” on the question list used by the ISI. That was presumably the list put together by the Manchester police and MI5. After about 13 days, he was visited by an officer from MI5 and another from MI6. He claims to have told them, during questioning, that he had been tortured. They deny that, but it is significant that they did not return for further interviews. By that stage, MI5 policy was not to return after any interview in which the subject claimed that he had been tortured. The British agents did not return, but Rangzieb was subsequently questioned by Americans.

Is it also an extraordinary, if sinister, coincidence that the Manchester police accessed Rangzieb Ahmed’s medical records within days of the MI5/MI6 interview? Why would they do that if he was in perfect health?

Rangzieb Ahmed was kept in detention by the Pakistani authorities for a total of 13 months—first at the ISI centre, then at Rawalpindi and then at Adiyala jail—before being deported to the United Kingdom in September 2007. He was tried and convicted of terrorist offences in late 2008—according to the prosecution, entirely on the basis of evidence obtained while he was under surveillance in the UK and Dubai in 2005-06. I cannot imagine a more obvious case of the outsourcing of torture, a more obvious case of “passive rendition”.

Let me recap. Rangzieb Ahmed should have been arrested by the UK in 2006, but he was not. The authorities knew that he intended to travel to Pakistan, so they should have prevented that; instead, they suggested that the ISI arrest him. They knew that he would be tortured, and they arranged to construct a list of questions and supply it to the ISI.

The authorities know full well that this story is an evidential showcase for the policy of complicity in torture, should that evidence ever come out. One way in which the in-camera veil of secrecy might be lifted would be a civil case by Mr. Ahmed against the Government for their complicity in torture. Part of that process would involve challenging the in-camera rulings and revealing the details of agency involvement. Just such a case was being considered by Mr. Ahmed, and on 20 April this year he was visited in prison by his solicitor and a specialist legal adviser to discuss it.

Mr. Ahmed tells us that a week later he was visited by an officer from MI5 and a policeman. That is the story told today on the front pages of the Daily Mail and The Guardian. During the course of their visit they said that they would like him to help in the fight against terror with information about extremism. This is perfectly proper.

However, the sinister part of this visit was an alleged request to drop his allegations of torture: if he did that, they could get his sentence cut and possibly give him some money. If this request to drop the torture case is true, it is frankly monstrous. It would at the very least be a criminal misuse of the powers and funds under the Government's Contest strategy, and at worst a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

I would normally be disinclined to believe the word of a convicted terrorist. However, when he initially told his lawyer about it, he did not want to pursue the matter. Also, in common with many other criminals, after the scandal of the taping of the current Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), on a prison visit, he believes all these meetings are taped and he says this will back him up.

Given that belief, he is unlikely to have made an allegation that would be so easily proven wrong. I do not believe the conversation was taped, but it would have been videoed and this could be used to check his story. For reasons of policy and natural justice, it is imperative that the Crown Prosecution service investigates this allegation immediately, but that is not my principal concern today.

My questions to the Minister are as follows. First, will he undertake to look at the in-camera court records and the records of the police and intelligence agencies so that he can confirm for his own satisfaction that my account of the handling of Rangzieb Ahmed pre-trial is correct? That process should take only a few days. Secondly, will he publish the current guidelines governing the agencies handling the suspected torture so that we can see whether the UK authorities broke those guidelines or whether it was the policy that was at fault? The Prime Minister has undertaken to publish the new guidelines, so if the Minister cannot publish the current ones, can he explain why his approach is different to the Prime Minister’s?

Thirdly, I believe, but cannot be certain to an evidential level, that the judge in the court case intimated that disciplinary action should be considered within the intelligence agencies. Was this done? If not, why not?

Finally, can the Minister now announce a proper judicial inquiry into the allegations of UK complicity in torture, since it is now clear that there is not just circumstantial evidence but hard evidence in government records for Ministers to read, if they had but eyes to see?

Let me conclude by saying that our handling of the subject of torture has, in my view, been completely wrong. The Americans have made a clean breast of their complicity, while explicitly not prosecuting the junior officers who were acting under instruction at a time of enormous duress and perceived threat after 9/11. We have done the opposite. As things stand, we are awaiting a police investigation that will presumably end in the prosecution of the front-line officers involved. At the same time, the Government are fighting tooth and nail to use state secrecy to cover up crimes and political embarrassments to protect those who are probably the real villains in the piece—those who approved these policies in the first place.

The battle against terrorism is not just a fight for life; it is a battle of ideas and ideals. It is a battle between good and evil, between civilisation and barbarism. In that fight, we should never allow our standards to drop to those of our enemies. We cannot defend our civilisation by giving up the values of that civilisation. I hope the Minister will today help me in ensuring that we find out what has gone wrong so we can return to defending those values once again.

I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on securing this important debate. I believe that he has sincere, genuine and long-standing concerns in this issue and I will try to do justice to the points that he makes.

I recall the responsible and non-partisan way in which the right hon. Gentleman behaved in the aftermath of the dreadful London bombings. He sought no political advantage, but sought to be a source of unity in this House and throughout the country along with my Front-Bench predecessors. Therefore, my only criticism of him this evening is that, during the course of the debate on these issues, he has repeated unsubstantiated accusations as fact. That is a departure from the way in which he has sought to approach these issues in the past.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that in both of the cases where these issues have been raised—one of which he has mentioned—the individuals concerned, Rangzieb Ahmed and Salahuddin Amin, have been convicted of terrorism offences and no evidence was found to substantiate the claims of UK involvement in mistreatment. Indeed, the gentleman to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred, Rangzieb Ahmed, was recently interviewed in his cell by The Guardian with a Ministry of Justice press official present and the record of this is yet to appear in the media. The same gentleman has an outstanding application for leave to appeal, which, as an active proceeding in a UK court, cannot be referred to in any motion, debate or question, as you are fully aware, Mr. Speaker. Therefore, Mr. Ahmed’s case should not be discussed further at present. In both cases, torture allegations were considered only to the extent that they were relevant to the criminal cases. Therefore, the degree to which they have been addressed should not be overstated. The right hon. Gentleman has brought these issues to the House tonight, but he is aware that I am very constrained in my capacity to respond directly to the accusations he makes. However, I will attempt to do justice to the general points that he has alluded to both in the past and in this debate.

I want to place it on record that the Government’s policy is that torture is an abhorrent crime and we are fundamentally opposed to it. That principle guides all of the Government’s work, including that of the intelligence agencies and armed forces. The Prime Minister addressed recent concerns about the involvement of the security services and armed forces in detention activities in his statement to the House of 18 March. That statement laid out measures to be taken to address these concerns.

International action against torture has been a priority for the Government since the launch of the United Kingdom initiative in 1998. This includes efforts to support wider ratification and implementation of the United Nations convention against torture and the optional protocol to the convention against torture through a combination of bilateral lobbying campaigns, multilateral engagement in the European Union and UN and project work.

For the period 2008-2011, the UK has allocated £5.5 million for overseas criminal justice, prison reform and torture prevention projects. The UK also supports strongly the work of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, the leading non-governmental organisation, which advocated the adoption of the optional protocol to the convention against torture and continues to campaign for its ratification.

My point is that the Government have taken a proactive approach to the work internationally against torture. If that is the case, how is that consistent with the right hon. Gentleman’s accusation that the UK Government have colluded in the use of torture? I say with respect to him that the two do not coincide, and that this is not a consistent statement of the facts.

I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that ensuring the welfare of detained British nationals is a priority in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s consular work. Any allegation of abuse is treated very seriously. All consular staff receive training which covers prisoner issues, including what to do when they have concerns over torture or mistreatment. When we have permission from the individual concerned, we can raise concerns with the relevant authorities with a view to ending the mistreatment and, when possible, have the incident investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. In exceptional circumstances, we now consider raising concerns even without an individual’s express consent. Even when an individual does not want us to take up their case specifically, our knowledge of it may enable us to lobby far more effectively for improvements in the way in which detainees are treated in general. In many countries we also raise far more general concerns about the treatment of detainees as part of our wider human rights dialogue.

I understand, as well as anybody, the Minister’s reticence to deal with any case that is sub judice, whether before the initial court or before the Court of Appeal. What I do not understand, because he has gone on to deal with the general, rather than the particular, is why we cannot address the very simple issue in this case: that this man, who was plainly under investigation as a terrorist, was allowed to leave this country. I know very well, as does the Minister, that that is precisely the reverse of the normal process that would apply. Anybody who was a suspect in those circumstances would be proscribed from leaving the country, stopped and arrested. Can we not address just this simple question: given the suspicion that this man was under, why was he allowed to travel to Pakistan? That information cannot be sub judice and it cannot interfere with any due process of justice.

My friend is not only honourable but learned, and he knows full well the answer to that question. That is why it is not reasonable or fair, in the context of this debate, to raise any matter relating to a case that is before the courts. He knows full well that any Minister stood at this Dispatch Box could not engage in an answer to that question without jeopardising matters that I understand are still being considered by the Court of Appeal in this country. One must ask why I am being asked to answer a question that hon. Members know I cannot possibly answer from this Dispatch Box at this time. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden knows better than to fuel conspiracy theories without providing substantive evidence to the House that proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the accusations that he is making about these cases are borne out.

I thank the Minister for his earlier comments about my non-partisan approach to dealing with terrorism—it is the standard. I cannot give him the evidence behind these cases, for the reasons that I gave earlier; I can simply say to him that I am confident of the facts. He does not wish to comment on the detail, but may I bring him back to a general point? One of the things that the Prime Minister has said is that he will put in the public domain the new guidelines on torture. Will the Minister undertake, tonight, to put in the public domain the current guidelines?

I am not able to do that in this debate. What the Prime Minister committed to do, in terms of this House, was the following. The authentic and genuine concerns raised by the right hon. Gentleman and others have, in a sense, shone a light on an area of public policy—Government action in the name of the United Kingdom—where, in a modern world, it is entirely appropriate that there should be proper scrutiny and accountability. In those circumstances, the Prime Minister has gone a step further than any previous Prime Minister; he has said that there is a need for such guidance to be produced and that it should then be made available, so that the standards of behaviour expected of anybody acting in the name of the British Government, or indeed the British people, in fulfilling incredibly difficult security duties are clearly in the public domain.

There was a time—who knows whether this is the case now—when it was perfectly feasible that the right hon. Gentleman could have become, at some point in the distant future, the Home Secretary of this country. If he had fulfilled those responsibilities, he would have faced every day some incredibly difficult judgment calls on how to protect the national security of our country—and balance it with individual human rights and civil liberties. Every day of every week, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have to deal with those difficult dilemmas.

If the right hon. Gentleman accepts in good faith that this country, and anyone acting in the name of this country, has now—as far as we are aware—engaged directly in torture, a secondary question arises. If, as Home Secretary, he received information that came as a consequence of collaboration and co-operation between the United Kingdom and others who may not play by our rules, abide by our standards or respect human rights in the same way as we do, what would he do about accusations against such individuals—I wish to make it clear that I am not referring to any individual mentioned in this debate—who were clearly engaged in terrorist activities that represented a threat to the people of this country? What would he have said if he were sat in the Home Secretary’s chair? Would he have said, “It is not appropriate under any circumstances for me to accept that information or evidence and to act on it, because I believe that there is a real danger that the dreadful security services in country x may have engaged in activities that are totally unacceptable under the standards of the UK”?

I do not know the right hon. Gentleman, but having listened to his appearance on “Desert Island Discs” I regard him as an authentic, genuine and straight Member of this House. I put it to him that had he become Home Secretary, those are the kinds of judgments that he would have had to make on a daily basis. That is why he more than anyone should not repeat accusations with no substantive evidence to support them. We have a series of allegations, some of which have been made by people who have been convicted, and others made by people who, as far as I know, have not been convicted in any court. We have no substantive, clear, unequivocal evidence to support the right hon. Gentleman’s contention that the British Government or agents acting on their behalf have colluded with acts of torture.

The right hon. Gentleman must demonstrate how he can be so sure that the evidence is so overwhelming and so beyond all reasonable doubt that he—as a highly respected and responsible parliamentarian—can come repeatedly to this House and use privilege to repeat those accusations.

I do not wish to interrupt the Minister’s peroration, but I put the question in three parts, one of which was whether he would undertake to look in the places that I indicated—in the agencies and the in- camera proceedings that are all available to him—and confirm things for himself. What he says are unfounded allegations, I believe to be facts.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am bound by matters to do with sub judice and the legal framework. Within those constraints, of course I will take responsibility for asking the fundamental questions that need to be asked before a judgment can be made. Of course it is the responsibility of a Minister to ask reasonable, responsible questions to get to the facts—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).