Chilcot Report must recognise role of torture evidence, says Reprieve

We are still due an independent inquiry into CIA torture


On 5 February, 2003, both US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the British prime minister made the same argument for the invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was supporting Al Qaeda.

However, a 2008 report by the Pentagon found that claim to be false: there was ‘no direct connection between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda.’  Even at the time, British intelligence had said there were ‘no current links’ between the two.

So how did this mistake come to be made?

The answer lies in the CIA’s ‘rendition’ programme, which saw detainees flown around the world to be subjected to torture.

In 2014, a major report on CIA torture by the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) made the link explicitly clear. Colin Powell had used ‘evidence’ extracted from a prisoner under torture ‘as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.’

The prisoner was a Libyan known as Ibn Sheikh al Libi.  According to the Senate Committee, he had been held in CIA custody before being ‘rendered’ to an unnamed country.

According to the New York Times, that country was Egypt, whose security services have long had a reputation for brutal torture. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report describes the use of ‘beatings, electric shocks…water-boarding [and] rape’ against prisoners in Egypt.

While in Egyptian custody, the Senate report says that al Libi ‘reported…that Iraq was supporting al-Qa’ida,’ and ‘this information was cited by Secretary Powell in his speech to the United Nations, and was used as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.’

There was just one problem.  Al Libi subsequently ‘recanted the claim,’ the report continues, ‘claiming that he had been tortured…and only told them what he assessed they wanted to hear.’

And here, even for the torture programme’s most enthusiastic backers, is a central problem: people being tortured will obviously say anything that they think will make it stop.

In this case, that information, later shown to be false, was used to justify a foreign policy decision which (to put it mildly) had severe consequences for millions of people.

Al Libi’s case is where the Iraq war and the CIA’s torture programme  – two of the most controversial aspects of the post-9/11 era  – intersect.  And that is why it is crucial that Britain should have a full, independent accounting of the role our politicians and agencies played in the CIA’s rendition operations.

So far, it is unclear whether Sir John Chilcot’s report will deal with the Al Libi case, or assess whether Tony Blair was using the same torture evidence as Colin Powell when he made the case for links between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

But whether or not the case features in the Chilcot report, it should serve as a reminder that we are still due the independent, judge-led inquiry into CIA torture that David Cameron promised us in July 2010 – and for which we have been waiting almost as long as we have for Chilcot.

We already know that the CIA torture programme – in which the UK was frequently complicit – led to some horrific outcomes.

Just last month, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed that British officials played a central role alongside the CIA in the 2004 kidnap and ‘rendition’ of two families to Libya, including a pregnant woman and four children aged 12 and under.

The pregnant woman, Fatima Boudchar — wife of Libyan dissident Abdul-Hakim Belhaj — was punched and chained to a wall for long periods during her ordeal, which included time in a secret CIA prison in Bangkok and a 17-hour flight taped to a stretcher.

One of the children, Khadija al Saadi, then just 12 years old, was convinced her entire family would be murdered on their return to Gaddafi’s Libya, because her father opposed the regime. She was so terrified that she passed out.

The CPS also confirmed that ‘political authority’ had been sought in relation to these operations, though it did not reveal in what form or from whom.  Yet, despite having been handed a 28,000 page file by Metropolitan Police investigators, the CPS claimed there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to bring charges over the UK Government’s involvement in the rendition.

Unlike in the US, where the Senate Committee produced a large-scale report on CIA torture, we have had no similar accountability in the UK, and no answers over who in government signed off on British complicity in rendition and torture.

Prosecutors claim ‘insufficient evidence’, the Government U-turns on its promise of an independent, judge-led inquiry.

If the crucial role of torture evidence in the Iraq saga now fails to surface in the Chilcot Report, it will be yet another way in which this shameful history has been swept under the carpet.

Donald Campbell is head of communications at Reprieve 

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