Boris Johnson fails to explicitly state Britain will not co-operate with Donald Trump's plans to introduce 'a lot worse than waterboarding'
The British government has been urged to state explicitly that it will not be dragged into a revived torture regime touted by Donald Trump. The call came as it faced a potentially explosive case about MI6's role in the Bush-era abduction of a Libyan family and their delivery to Muammar Gaddafi.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, 50, won a Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday that allows him to launch a civil case against the British state, laying bare its co-operation with the CIA to abduct him and his then-pregnant wife Fatima Boudchar in 2004. Belhaj was subsequently tortured in a Gaddafi jail.
The Belhaj family is seeking an apology and damages of £1 each from the Home Office, Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, and senior MI6 officer Sir Mark Allen.
Johnson: No comment on intelligence
Human rights groups said the case should serve as a reminder of British collusion in George W Bush's "enhanced interrogation" programme and as a warning about any future co-operation with Trump. The president-elect said in February 2016 that he wanted "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding". In November Trump stated that even if the technique did not produce results, "they deserve it anyway for what they do to us".
'It has been the longstanding policy of successive British governments not to comment on intelligence matters'
- Boris Johnson, British foreign secretary
The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has repeatedly refused to explicitly rule out aiding Trump in future so-called "rendition" abductions and the resulting abuse of the targets.
In a December letter to lawyers at human rights organisation Reprieve, which was passed to Middle East Eye, Johnson responded to a request to rule out co-operation by stating that it was "the longstanding policy of successive British governments not to comment on intelligence matters".
But he added: "However, the UK stands firmly against the use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. We do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of such techniques."
Boris Johnson said the British government does not comment on intelligence matters (AFP)
In early January Johnson again failed to explicitly rule out co-operation with the US.
In the House of Commons, Johnson he was asked by Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael: "When the foreign secretary met the president-elect’s team, did he make it clear to them that the UK will not share intelligence with his administration, if his administration is to use it then in association with a revived US torture programme?"
Johnson replied: "I am sure the house will forgive me if I remind the right honourable gentleman that we do not discuss intelligence matters or their operational nature."
Reprieve's lawyer Cori Crider said the situation must be addressed directly - and explicitly ruled out - to ensure Britain did not repeat under Trump the follies of the Bush era.
"In 72 hours, a would-be torturer will take the reins of Earth’s most powerful security state. So this case isn’t ‘just' about history - the stakes couldn’t be higher," she said.
'In 72 hours, a would-be torturer will take the reins of Earth’s most powerful security state. So this case isn’t ‘just' about history - the stakes couldn’t be higher'
- Cori Crider, Reprieve
"We enter the Trump era with not a soul held to account for Britain’s past role in rendition. No official has condemned Trump’s torture boasts. Our intelligence agencies may well be pressured to help America torture again.
“It’s just false to claim that the government does not comment on torture – it has a 15-page public policy document devoted to exactly this issue. It had to publish the document given the uproar over our complicity in torture last time.
"The alarming conclusion is that the government is gearing up to sell out British values in order to get close to torture enthusiast Donald Trump.
"If so, ministers have learned nothing from the disaster of the Bush era, when the UK shamefully collaborated in the kidnap and abuse of men, women and children.”
Is UK losing oversight of guidance?
Crider said Britain was weakening its oversight of Consolidated Guidance, the policy created in 2010 by the government of David Cameron which guides overseas agents.
"The office which oversees compliance, the intelligence services commissioner, is being abolished with the passing of the Investigatory Powers Act," she said, "and it's not clear who is taking over. They are not taking this seriously.
Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W Bush in 2005 (AFP)
"British policy on torture always had, and continues to have loopholes, big enough to drive a bus through, and they have decreased what little oversight of the torture policy there ever was."
"It's all very well to say 'we've learned our lesson' but what is in place to make sure that is the case?
"The first moment that, God forbid, there was some sort of attack during the Trump presidency... imagine the response."
Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s legal programme director, said Britain must ensure it does not follow other friendly states in breaking international laws on human rights.
'At the current time, the importance of getting to the truth about UK complicity in torture and other human rights abuses during the ‘war on terror’ could not be more clear'
- Rachel Logan, Amnesty International
“At the current time, the importance of getting to the truth about UK complicity in torture and other human rights abuses during the ‘war on terror’ could not be more clear. Justice must be done.
"It is also critical to ensure that lessons are learned if these allegations are true, and that even if friendly states decide to ignore their human rights obligations in the future, UK officials know that there are lines that should never be crossed."
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said recent changes in British legislation would ensure "rigorous" oversight of policy guiding overseas agents.
"Once the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 has been implemented, oversight of the Consolidated Guidance will be undertaken by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner," the spokesperson said.
"The commissioner will have a range of legal and technical resources available to them in order to carry out rigorous and exacting oversight."