Stinging comments come as America dismisses UN report on Guantanamo
A high court judge yesterday delivered a stinging attack on America, saying its idea of what constituted torture was out of step with that of “most civilised nations”.
The criticism, directed at the Bush administration’s approach to human rights, was made by Mr Justice Collins during a hearing over the refusal by ministers to request the release of three British residents held at Guanta’namo Bay.
The judge said: “America’s idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations.” He made his comments, he said, after learning of the UN report that said Guantanamo should be shut down without delay because torture was still being carried out there.
The report, by five inspectors for the UN human rights commissioner, refers to shackling, hooding and forcing detainees to wear earphones and goggles. In particular, it refers to interrogation techniques and excessive violence used to forcefeed prisoners on hunger strike. Based on interviews with detainees’ lawyers, former inmates and written exchanges with US officials, it calls on the US to put the 490 inmates on trial or release them.
Last night, the secretary general, Kofi Annan, said: “Sooner or later there will be a need to close the Guantanamo [camp].” He added that though he did not agree with everything in the report, he opposed holding people “in perpetuity”.
The UN inspectors refused a US offer to tour Guanta’namo after they were barred from visiting the prisoners. The 40-page document is the UN’s first to address Guanta’namo. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, dismissed its findings as a “rehash of old allegations” and “a discredit to the organisation”. “The detainees are being treated humanely,” he said. “Remember these are terrorists.”
But in one of the strongest remarks yet by a British cabinet minister, Peter Hain said last night that the government believed the camp should be shut. Asked on the BBC’s Question Time programme whether Tony Blair supported that view he said “I think so, yes”.
The Bush administration has defined torture in narrow terms, referring to intense physical injury and organ failure. Controversy about the definition goes to the heart of allegations that the US has secretly used Britain to transport detainees to interrogation centres in countries where torture occurs, in the practice known as “extraordinary rendition”.
Ministers have relied on US assurances that senior British lawyers have repeatedly questioned. In a law lords judgment last year, Lord Bingham referred to US techniques, including sensory deprivation and inducing a perception of suffocation, which, he said, would be defined as torture in British law.
Mr Justice Collins said three British residents in Guanta’namo could now seek a court order requiring the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to petition for their release. The case, brought by Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, and Omar Deghayes, and relatives living in Britain, could be heard as early as next week.
Responding to the judge’s remarks about the US definition of torture, Rabinder Singh QC, counsel for the three detainees and their families, said Britain and the European court of human rights would “undoubtedly condemn” many of the practices at Guanta’namo. Mr Rawi is an Iraqi who has lived in the UK since 1985. His business partner, Mr Banna, is a Jordanian refugee, and Mr Deghayes is a Libyan refugee. All three were taken to Guanta’namo via Afghanistan.
Mr Rawi and Mr Banna were seized by CIA agents in Gambia in 2002. Chris Mullin, a former Foreign Office minister for Africa, says British agents helped the Americans seize the two men. They are alleged to have had contacts with al-Qaida because of a connection with the radical cleric Abu Qatada.
Mr Deghayes was detained in Pakistan. His name was said to be on the FBI’s “most wanted” list yet the photograph in his file was of a different person, the court heard. Mr Deghayes was almost blind in one eye through the use of pepper spray and gouging during his detention, yet is still being constantly subjected to bright light.