Britain’s latest counterterrorism disasters

The truth about renditions and detentions at the island of Diego Garcia has to be revealed.

Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan were detained for eight and six years respectively while appealing extradition to the US [Reuters]

The last few weeks have been challenging for the British government and its counterterrorism policies – and for a good reason. Ever since the war on terror began, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the UK has happily embraced the lawless novelties conceived by the Bush administration – including extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention without charge or trial.

One aspect of Britain’s complicity in extraordinary rendition involves the island of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, a British Overseas Territory that has been leased to the US since the 1970s. In December 2002, it was first reported, in the Washington Post, that Diego Garcia was “one of a number of secret detention centers overseas” where the CIA was holding and interrogating prisoners of the “war on terror”.

In October 2003, Time reported that “a regional intelligence official” had stated that Hambali, a “high-value detainee” seized in Thailand two months earlier, was being held and interrogated on Diego Garcia, and in the years that followed, other claims were made, both by journalists and by retired US general Barry McCaffrey, who, in May 2004 and December 2006, referred to prisoners being held on Diego Garcia. 

Nevertheless, both Prime Minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary Jack Straw denied that Diego Garcia had been used as a prison, or even that rendition flights had passed through the territory. It was not until February 2008 that Straw’s replacement, David Miliband, told parliament that the US authorities had just discovered that two flights, each carrying a single prisoner, had refuelled on Diego Garcia in 2002. “The detainees did not leave the plane,” Miliband explained, “and the US Government has assured us that no US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia.”

In August 2008, the Observer reported that Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon was told by US intelligence agents that Mustafa Setmarian, a Syrian based in Spain, had been “taken to Diego Garcia in late 2005 and held there for months”, and in July 2009 Reprieve, the legal action charity, identified one man rendered through Diego Garcia as former Guantanamo prisoner, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni. Since then, there have been other claims, further undermining US and UK credibility – claims that, for example, Abdul Hakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi, two opponents of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, who were kidnapped with their families, and with UK assistance, had passed through Diego Garcia. 

Allegations resurface

In April, the alleged “black site” on Diego Garcia surfaced once more, when, for Al Jazeera, Jason Leopold reported that two US officials who have read portions of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,600-page report into the Bush administration’s torture programme, said that the CIA “detained some high-value suspects on Diego Garcia” in a “black site” established “with the ‘full cooperation’ of the British government”. The report took four years to complete, but is still unpublished because of wrangling with the CIA.  

As Leopold described it, the report’s evidence about Diego Garcia “would confirm long-standing claims by human rights investigators and journalists, whose allegations – based on flight logs and unnamed government sources – have routinely been denied by the CIA” – and, of course, by the British government.

People & Power – Libya: Renditions

Following up on these claims, the Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, who established the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition in 2005, recently asked the foreign office for information about which government departments hold records of flights that passed through Diego Garcia from January 2002 to January 2009, he was told that the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) immigration authorities hold the records, but that those from 2002 were “incomplete due to water damage,” as the Guardian described it. 

This prompted Cori Crider of Reprieve to state, “The government might as well have said the dog ate their homework. This smacks of a cover-up.”

This conclusion was strengthened when, just days later, a UK government official was photographed carrying copies of emails discussing flight records whose existence the government has persistently denied, and the latest twist came on July 16, when a Foreign Office official stated that, after “a fuller inspection”, the BIOT authorities had discovered that “previously wet paper records” – the result of a leaking roof during “extremely heavy weather in June 2014” – had “dried out”. 

Deeply flawed processes

To add to the credibility issues raised by the latest Diego Garcia revelations, the UK government also needs questioning about its treatment of Babar Ahmad, a computer specialist, and Talha Ahsan, a poet who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Both men are British citizens, and they were extradited to the US in October 2012 as part of the deeply flawed UK-US extradition treaty of 2003. In 2011, the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a critical report, stating that safeguards in UK to US cases were “inadequate”, and, as the BBC explained, also said that “more evidence was needed to justify requests and judges should be able to refuse them if they were not in the ‘interests of justice.'” 

Will US personnel ever face torture charges?

Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan were held without charge or trial in the UK for eight years and six years respectively as they challenged their extradition. However, after the last legal challenge failed, they were extradited, spending over two years in a maximum security prison in Connecticut.

At their trial in December 2013, they both agreed to a plea deal, accepting that they provided material support to the Taliban and to mujahideen in Chechnya through websites in which they raised money and recruited fighters in return for sentences less than the 25 years and 15 years sought by the prosecution. Until they were extradited, neither man had set foot in the US, and the only basis for their extradition was that one of the servers for Ahmad’s website was based in Connecticut.

Last week, in the federal court in New Haven, Judge Janet Hall gave Babar Ahmad a twelve-and-a-half year sentence, but gave him credit for the eight years he has already spent imprisoned in the UK, and his two years in the US. He is to be returned to the UK to serve the remainder of his sentence, and with good behaviour will be released in 13 months. In Talha Ahsan’s case, Judge Hall gave him a sentence of time served (eight years in total), and he should soon be back in the UK, a free man.  

What the UK and US governments both need to do now is to make sure that no one else is pointlessly extradited like Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. In July 2004 and December 2006, the Crown Prosecution Service declared that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Ahmad with any criminal offence under UK law, as did Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, in September 2006, and yet neither the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, nor the current Tory-led coalition government, took any interest. Instead, Theresa May, the current home secretary, drew understandable accusations of racism when, having gloated about the successful extradition of Ahmad, Ahsan and three other men in the opening words of her speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2012, she then refused to extradite Gary McKinnon, a hacker who also has Asperger’s Syndrome, the week after.

Given the previous behaviour of senior UK government officials, whether Labour or Conservative, it seems unlikely that the truth about Diego Garcia will be produced willingly, but it is to be hoped that the belated nod towards fairness in the sentences handed down by Judge Hall in Connecticut will have repercussions in the UK that cause the government to think very carefully about its counterterrorism policies.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist. He has been researching and writing about Guantanamo since 2006, and has worked with the United Nations, WikiLeaks, Reprieve and Cageprisoners. He is the co-founder of the Close Guantanamo campaign, and authored the book The Guantanamo Files.

Follow him on twitter: @guantanamoandy