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US Prison Ships

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether any British citizens have been held in United States prison ships since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are not aware of any cases where British citizens have been held on US naval vessels since the start of operations in Iraq in 2003.

My Lords, I find it astounding that Her Majesty’s Government can say only that they are “not aware” and cannot tell us what they know. We are constantly told that we are the closest ally of the United States, yet we are now, several years after the Iraq war, still uninformed as to whether British citizens have been held on US prison ships and whether American prison ships have been posted in UK territorial waters, for example off Diego Garcia. Can the Government now assure us that they will discover what the situation has been and publish it?

My Lords, I hope that the House will understand that it is hard to prove a negative. The Government are not aware of any cases such as those referred to, but it is not possible to offer a categorical assurance that this has not happened without our knowledge. Of course, if noble Lords are aware of any British citizens who have been unlawfully held on a naval vessel by the United States, they should provide this information to the Government as a matter of urgency so that it can be investigated. The House will know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, following the declarations of 15 February and the Statement made in both Houses on 21 February, has written to the Secretary of State in the United States with a number of questions about these matters.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have heard a series of rumours about extraordinary rendition ever since the war in Iraq began; that those rumours have, in turn, led to a series of Parliamentary Questions in both Chambers; that those Questions have mostly been met by Answers that were not complete; and that, to this day, none of us knows exactly what the situation is? May I therefore ask, first, whether we have any evidence that the United States ships used as prisons were either maintained or refuelled in Diego Garcia or its immediate territorial waters? Secondly, do we know whether there are manifests for such ships and, if there are, whether we have examined carefully such manifests for possible links to British citizens?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that there have been stories around this issue for many years and many suggestions have been made. It was for that reason, among others, following what happened in February, that the Foreign Secretary wrote to Secretary Rice to clarify a number of specific issues. These included the question raised by the noble Baroness whether detainees were ever held on ships outside the territorial water of Diego Garcia but perhaps supplied from the island. There is, as yet, no response to that letter. There will be a response. I will tell the noble Baroness if and when a response comes.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in the context of our special relationship with the United States it is crucial to take every opportunity to remind it that, if we are to contain radicalisation and the growth of extremism in Islamic and other communities, it is essential that all actions taken are transparently within the context of international law and that anything that is done should on no account be counterproductive in terms of driving people into the arms of extremists?

My Lords, indeed, and that is what we say to our American friends. I reject any assertion that we can no longer trust the United States on these matters. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made it absolutely clear on 21 February that we do not believe that we should conduct foreign policy with our most important bilateral partner on the basis of disbelief or a presumption of deceit. The US gave us its earlier assurances in good faith and we accepted those assurances and referred to them publicly in good faith. When the United States realised that a mistake had been made, it came to us directly, without delay.

My Lords, is it not highly unsatisfactory if, for example, Iraqi or Afghan citizens are held in legal black holes with little or no due process of law? Does this not put the lives of British soldiers at risk?

My Lords, it is extremely unsatisfactory if that is what happens. The British Government’s policy is quite clear: we unreservedly condemn torture—what the noble Lord is suggesting is akin to torture—including any extraordinary rendition to torture. We have always condemned torture. The UK Government, including their intelligence and security agencies, never use torture for any purpose, including obtaining information, nor would we instigate action by others to do so. That is what we say to our friends and allies.

My Lords, can the Minister remind the House what the Geneva conventions say about holding POWs afloat as opposed to transporting them by ship?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot tell the noble Earl what they say, but of course I will look up the information and write to him. However, I suspect that he probably knows the answer to the question that he has raised.