The West’s Tolerance of Torture Inflames the Muslim World

March 3rd, 2007 - by admin

Tom Porteous / Guardian Unlimited & Human Rights Watch – 2007-03-03 22:46:50

A Fig Leaf for Britain
Tom Porteous / Guardian Unlimited

LONDON (February 27, 2007) — There is a chronic epidemic of torture in the Middle East and it feeds directly into political militancy, conflict and terrorism. Extremist groups like al-Qaida have long been led and inspired by victims of state torture.

The west has winked and nodded at torture in the Middle East for decades. It has provided billions of dollars of military and economic aid to governments like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia which practise torture on a routine basis. This is one reason why the rage of Islamist militants is now directed against the west as well as against their own abusive governments. The CIA calls it blowback.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) ruled on Monday that a Jordanian cleric, Omar Othman, aka Abu Qatada, should be sent back to Jordan, a country where he faces a serious risk of being tortured. For millions of Muslims around the world this judgment will provide yet more evidence (and there is already plenty) that the links which bind western governments with Middle Eastern states which practise torture are getting stronger and cosier in the post 9/11 security climate.

Thus the SIAC has taken a step which will help do further damage to the UK’s reputation among Muslims in the Middle East, and make it less likely that Muslim communities in the UK will cooperate with the police in their efforts to thwart terrorism. In short the SIAC’s judgment will make the UK more vulnerable, not less, to terrorism.

The British government has argued, and the SIAC now agrees, that a memorandum of understanding signed with Jordan provides adequate guarantees that Abu Qatada will not be tortured. But extensive research by Human Rights Watch has shown that such MoUs or “diplomatic assurances” are not worth the paper they are written on.

Why should Jordan respect an unenforceable bilateral agreement with the UK if it has shown on countless well-documented occasions that it does not respect its legally binding international obligations not to practice torture?

The real purpose is not to provide protection for the likes of Abu Qatada. Rather these MoUs have been invented to provide the British government with a legal fig leaf, and a flimsy one at that, behind which the UK hopes to get rid of turbulent Muslim clerics and terrorist suspects like Abu Qatada while appearing to comply with its obligations under the Convention Against Torture (according to which it is illegal to deport people to places where they face is a serious risk of torture).

The SIAC has now given credibility to this legal sleight of hand. In doing so it has ignored or dismissed much evidence – presented to the SIAC by Human Rights Watch and others – that diplomatic assurances against torture cannot be effectively monitored, that they have not worked in the past and that they are unlikely to work in the future.

Only this week the underlying principle of diplomatic assurances was undermined when it was reported that two Algerians recently deported from the UK to Algeria have been detained and face trial on terrorism charges, in spite of clear assurances given to London by the Algerian government that they would not face legal proceedings.

The SIAC ruling will have won the support of many people in the UK across the political spectrum who feel that Abu Qatada and his like have abused the hospitality of this country and should be sent back to their countries of origin as soon as possible, whatever the consequences for them.

But the fact that a measure may be popular does not make it wise or lawful. If the allegations against Abu Qatada and other suspects are as serious as they are made out to be, then these individuals should be vigorously prosecuted with the full weight of the law.

Sending them to countries like Jordan and Libya where they risk torture not only has consequences for them, but also for us. It makes our elected politicians and society indirectly responsible for torture, it binds us ever more closely to unpopular and repressive states in the Middle East, and it undermines the values we say we are fighting for.

None of that makes us any the safer.

Tom Porteous is the London Director of Human Rights Watch.

Related Material

• Cases Involving Diplomatic Assurances against Torture
Background Briefing, January 23, 2007

• United Kingdom: Human Rights Watch Statement in Omar Othman (Abu Qatada) Case
Background Briefing, November 6, 2006

• “Diplomatic Assurances” against Torture
Questions and Answers, November 10, 2006

• Dangerous Ambivalence
Background Briefing, November 2, 2006

© Copyright 2003, Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA

UK: Abu Qatada Ruling Threatens
Absolute Ban on Torture

Assurances by Jordan Won’t Protect Terrorism Suspect from Torture

Human Rights Watch< LONDON (March 1, 2007) – By allowing the deportation of a national security suspect to Jordan based on unenforceable promises of humane treatment, a British court decision on Monday threatens to undermine the global ban on torture, Human Rights Watch said today. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) – an immigration court that hears appeals against deportation on national security grounds — ruled that Omar Othman (also known as Abu Qatada), a recognized refugee and radical Muslim cleric accused of ties to al-Qaeda, can be safely deported to Jordan under the terms of a “memorandum of understanding” brokered between the UK and Jordan in August 2005. The memorandum contains a set of diplomatic assurances undertaking that Othman and other suspects returned to Jordan will be treated humanely and receive a fair trial if they are returned. The SIAC ruling is the first test of the British policy of securing unreliable assurances from governments that torture to facilitate the deportation of terrorism suspects at risk of such treatment. “If the Abu Qatada ruling is allowed to stand, it will seriously damage the absolute ban against returning people to the risk of torture,” said Julia Hall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The SIAC ignored credible evidence that assurances from abusive governments fail to protect people at risk of torture. We hope that the higher courts will reverse this ruling and bring the UK back into line with international law.” The decision has implications beyond the UK. Governments in North America and across Europe are watching developments in this case very closely, as many of them are eager to use diplomatic assurances against torture to deport foreign terrorism suspects to places where they are at risk of abuse. Affirming the UK’s policy could send a signal to other governments that employing such unreliable agreements is a valid counterterrorism measure. The SIAC held that the safeguards contained in the memorandum of understanding would provide Qatada with adequate protection upon his return. The assurances are to be monitored by a local nongovernmental organization funded in large part by the UK government. But the court also acknowledged that torture in Jordan is a serious problem, especially for terrorism suspects, and there is little accountability for those who perpetrate torture. The court accepted the British government’s argument that the relationship of trust between the UK and Jordan, and the countries’ strong political commitment to abide by the terms of the memorandum remedied any concerns about Jordan violating the agreement. In May 2006, Human Rights Watch submitted an expert statement to the SIAC in the Othman case arguing that there is no basis upon which to trust unenforceable diplomatic assurances against torture from the Jordanian authorities, whose agents routinely deny that they employ torture. Following his visit to Jordan last June, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak in January issued a report documenting substantial allegations of torture, particularly at the hands of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID). These abuses included beatings with a variety of blunt instruments (truncheons, batons, plastic pipes), use of electric shock batons and burning with cigarette butts. When Nowak brought the allegations to the authorities, they denied any knowledge of torture, which he described as “astonishing and point[ing] to a lack of awareness and recognition by officials of the nature of the prohibition of torture … and of its gravity and severity.” In September 2006, Human Rights Watch released the report, “Suspicious Sweeps: The General Intelligence Department and Jordan’s Rule of Law Problem,” which included 16 case studies detailing the arbitrary arrest and abuse, including torture, of persons in GID custody. In 14 of the 16 cases, the individuals or their family members provided credible and consistent testimony that the GID had tortured or ill-treated them. Two detainees described how the GID subjected them to the “salt and vinegar walk,” which consists of beating the soles of a detainee until they bleed and then forcing him to walk on a mixture of salt and vinegar, causing a burning sensation in his open wounds. Jordanian officials routinely claim that allegations of torture are a ploy to gain acquittal or get charges dismissed. However, 13 of the 16 detainees had been released without trial and had nothing to gain from continuing to allege that the GID had abused them. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, Jordan’s prosecutor general has initiated no criminal investigations into alleged arbitrary arrest, violation of due process rights, or torture. “Assurances of humane treatment cannot be considered credible when they come from a government that routinely flouts its international obligations not to engage in torture,” said Hall. “Meaningful monitoring in those circumstances is just wishful thinking.” Diplomatic assurances are unenforceable, and there is no recourse for a person if the assurances are breached. The British Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, the European Union network of human rights experts, and the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner have all argued against their use as means of returning people at risk of torture. The lack of any credible enforcement of the ban against torture in Jordan, and particularly for those in GID custody, makes it unlikely that any person detained there on terrorism-related charges would even be willing to report torture to Jordanian officials, much less to a small nongovernmental monitor. To do so would be to risk reprisals against the detainee or his or her family members. Even if a detainee made allegations of torture, Jordan’s record of impunity for torture makes a credible and comprehensive investigation extremely unlikely. The SIAC also accepted the British government’s argument that trials before a military State Security Court could be fair, despite its lack of independence, the limited procedural guarantees afforded to defendants, and the historic use of evidence extracted under torture. “The British government’s policy of deporting suspects to countries like Jordan on the basis of flimsy diplomatic assurances not only undermines the global ban on torture, but it also damages Britain’s standing among Muslims at home and abroad,” said Hall. “In the long run, this threatens to make Britain less safe, not more.” Related Material

• Human Rights Watch’s expert statement in the Othman case
Written Statement

• “Diplomatic Assurances” against Torture: Questions and Answers
Questions and Answers, November 10, 2006

• UK/Jordan: Torture Risk Makes Deportations Illegal: Agreement Bad Model for Region
Press Release, August 16, 2005

• Suspicious Sweeps: The General Intelligence Department and Jordan’s Rule of Law Problem
Report, September 19, 2006

• More of Human Rights Watch’s work on Diplomatic Assurances
Thematic Page

© Copyright 2003, Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA