Abuse, British complicity and the scandal of the prisoners held at Guantanamo

Editorial

The Independent

05 August 2004

One of the reasons the US authorities have given for continuing to confine so many prisoners at Guantanamo is the danger they say these 600 people could present to the Western world if they were free. It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that there may be another reason why these individuals are being kept out of circulation: the harrowing accounts of their treatment they might produce if, and when, they were released.

The 115-page dossier, published yesterday on behalf of former detainees from Britain - the "Tipton three" - shows just what the US authorities have to fear. And not only the US authorities but, no less scandalously, the British authorities, too.

Many of the horrifying allegations of ill-treatment were made by the men in interviews they gave soon after their release. But partly because money changed hands, and partly because some of the accusations seemed so far-fetched, the interviews raised questions of their own. Three months on, the men's charges simply cannot be dismissed.

For all the unfortunate connotations of the word "dossier" in Britain today, this document is a painstaking account which comes with the imprimatur of the men's first-class lawyer, Ms Gareth Peirce. Above all, three months on, there is corroboration of a macabre kind for even the worst of the abuses alleged. The shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib prison showed what few had trusted themselves to believe: there was widespread mistreatment, verging on torture, of prisoners in US detention. International conventions on the treatment of prisoners, to which the US was a signatory, were extensively violated.

The similarity between the excesses at Abu Ghraib and those claimed by the "Tipton three" are too great to be coincidental. They were treated with systematic brutality. They were interrogated at gunpoint, deprived of sleep, subjected to painful internal searches, shown pornography, intimidated by dogs and photographed naked. Prisoners told them of being sexually humiliated and made to perform indecent acts. All was designed to break young Muslim detainees.

It is important to recall that none of this was taking place in Iraq, where US soldiers were still engaged in armed combat, but at the specially constructed "facility" at Guantanamo, where the US had expressly undertaken to treat prisoners in accordance with the Geneva conventions, if not strictly as prisoners of war. As the "Tipton three" graphically convey, they did not know when, even whether, they would be released. Their US guards and interrogators never let them forget that they wielded ultimate power over them

As if their treatment at the hands of their American captors was not reprehensible enough, the charges the three make about British complicity are, if true, nothing short of an outrage. It would appear that even as British ministers were assuring Parliament that they were making strong representations to the Americans and working to secure the British prisoners' release, the SAS and British intelligence officers were actually co-operating with the Americans in interrogations.

It is entirely possible, therefore, that at least parts of British officialdom not only knew that British citizens were being mistreated, but turned a blind eye for the sake of the information they hoped to obtain. The first British response yesterday hardly inspired confidence. Officials said that none of the Britons had alleged abuse during diplomats' visits, even though one of the three says he submitted a written complaint.

British involvement at Guantanamo must be the subject of a thorough investigation. If British officers or agents were complicit in the mistreatment of prisoners there, they - and their superiors - must be held to account. In the meantime, we need to be told precisely what the Government is doing to secure the release of the four British citizens who remain in legal limbo at the US base on Cuba, and why it is all taking so unconscionably long.