Unravelling the truth behind ‘torture flights’

BACK in December 2005, ­human rights activists ­gathered outside Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick ­airports to protest against ­extraordinary rendition.

With evidence mounting that CIA aircraft involved in transporting prisoners to countries known to use torture had refuelled in Scotland, feelings were running high.

In Edinburgh, a banner reading “Stop the Torture Flights” was tied to a barrier; a man in an orange boiler suit lay on the ground – a symbol of those suspects detained without trial at Guantanamo Bay. “We had placards and leaflets and it was all very colourful and peaceful,” says Richard Haley, chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities which ­organised those early vigils. “Back then – when the story about the involvement of Scottish airports first broke – our ­reaction was that it was an outrage, but also that it was an aberration; it struck everyone as so obviously wrong, we just kind of took it for granted that something would be done about it.”

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Yet as the sheer complexity of the flight routes were exposed and the authorities began to close ranks, it became apparent that not only was extraordinary rendition a key weapon in the United States’ War on Terror, but that establishing exactly what had happened on Scottish soil, never mind holding anyone to account for it, would be a huge challenge. With an early police investigation dropped because of “insufficient evidence”, campaigners became disheartened. “One of the biggest disappointments for us was that the SNP – which had been so supportive in opposition – stepped back from any wish to do anything specific about it once they were in office,” Haley says. “We went from the SNP being integral to the campaign to it putting the needs of foreign policy first. We never thought exposing the truth would be easy, but we didn’t expect the level of stonewalling we faced.”

Campaigners south of the Border faced similar hurdles; although the Council of Europe and Amnesty International produced comprehensive reports charting hundreds of flights made by aircraft known to be involved in rendition, and alleged victims told of being kidnapped then tortured in clandestine centres, little progress was made. The Labour Government – on whose watch the War on Terror began – denied all knowledge of the rendition flights, with the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw branding claims they had landed at UK airports as “conspiracy theories”. And though David Cameron said the allegations of collusion were tarnishing the UK’s reputation, the Gibson Inquiry he set up to look into them was boycotted by human rights groups who claimed it was insufficiently impartial, independent and transparent, and then dropped altogether as the Met launched a criminal investigation into claims the intelligence agencies were involved in the rendition of two Libyan rebels – Abdelhakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi – to their homeland where they were tortured by Muammar Gaddafi in 2004.

Last week, however, the effort to establish the truth about the role of Scottish airports in the CIA’s rendition programme took an unexpected step forward when Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland ordered a new police inquiry into the issue. The move came after two British academics – Ruth Blakeley of Kent University and Sam Raphael of Kingston University – launched The Rendition Project online. Together with the legal action charity Reprieve, they tracked 11,000 flights by more than 120 aircraft previously linked to rendition and found 1,600 of them had involved landings at British airports, including Aberdeen, Inverness and Wick. Although there is no evidence detainees were on board the aircraft on any of the Scottish stop-offs, it is claimed CIA flights used the airports to refuel on their way back from some of the most notorious post-9/11 renditions, including one in which two men were kidnapped in Sweden and flown to Egypt, where they suffered years of torture. The website also lists a number of shell companies it says hid up to 30 aircraft owned by the CIA, as well as real companies who wittingly or unwittingly provided logistical support. Also listed are dummy flights (flights which were logged but didn’t take place) used to throw would-be investigators off the trail.

Their research followed on from the Open Society Justice Initiative’s Globalising Torture report which claimed as many as 54 countries aided the CIA’s programme which involved the transfer of 130 named individuals to prisons where they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including waterboarding and electric shocks.

Human rights activists have welcomed the Scottish police inquiry which will examine all the new evidence. There has been some scepticism as to the impact an investigation carried out by a bit player in the global rendition network can make, particularly since foreign policy is reserved to Westminster. But most hope it will uncover new information, establish whether or not Scottish ministers or officials were aware of what was going on and lay down a marker for the future.

In Italy, 23 CIA officers were convicted in absentia in connection with the 2003 abduction of Imam Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from Milan to Cairo, but the US has refused to agree to their extradition. Across Europe, other investigations have foundered after some jurisdictions proved uncooperative or their own governments refused to answer questions on the grounds of national security.

“Given what’s happened elsewhere, I think it would be relatively easy for the people who are involved to shut this [inquiry] down, so I don’t anticipate it will lead to any prosecutions,” says human rights lawyer John Scott QC. “To my mind this is more about trying to ensure Scottish airports aren’t used in the ­future.”

According to Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith, however, Metropolitan officers have been given the resources and freedom to investigate MI6’s role in the rendition of Belhadj and al-Saadi and have travelled to Guantanamo to interview British citizen Shaker Aamer, who claims MI5 officers were complicit in his torture at Bagram Airport prison in Afghanistan. Stafford Smith says Scottish officers should be able to access documents from Eurocontrol, the European organisation for the safety of air navigation, along with documentary evidence on corporations which have been implicated in the rendition programme.

“We are not interested in sending small-fry individuals to prison. What we are really looking to do is to expose what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen in the future,” Stafford Smith says. “There are fairly simple things one can do to prevent it – tightening up reporting requirements at airports, giving the police powers to search aircraft, requiring airlines to execute a simple declaration they are not going around committing criminal acts around the world – those things are not terribly difficult, but they shift the onus onto corporations and governments to promise they are not violating the law.

“However, it’s also important that people understand what happened, because in the wake of 9/11 people in authority behaved atrociously. We need to make sure that the next time there’s a panic, there are rules in place that prevent them from turning to a pattern of action that may be their natural one but is a very bad one.”

Although extraordinary rendition had been used to detain suspected terrorists during the Reagan and Clinton administrations, it only became common practice when the Bush/Cheney administration launched the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. Since then hundreds of people suspected of aiding and abetting extremist organisations have been shackled, blindfolded, sedated and sent to third-party states such as Egypt, ­Jordan, Morocco and Uzbekistan.

Others have been taken to so-called “black sites” in Eastern Europe – covert prisons whose existence is denied by the US government. Three Yemeni men held for 18 months at such sites described being held in isolation in cells with no windows or floor coverings. Artificial light was kept on 24/7 and they were forced to listen to a constant low-level white noise or loud western music. Some of those rendered are eventually taken to the US, others disappear.

Though the US acknowledges it has used rendition on a number of “high-value detainees”, it initially insisted it did so in accordance with US law and denied those involved were tortured. When Obama came into office he immediately banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, but refused to commission an official inquiry into what had happened in the Bush/Cheney era because, he said, it was better to look forwards than backwards.

However, earlier this year, the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, an independent panel charged with examining the federal government’s policies and actions in relation to the detention of terror suspects, concluded it was “indisputable” that the US had used torture.

On this side of the Atlantic, there has also been mounting evidence of the UK’s complicity, with Straw’s assertion that Tony Blair’s government was not involved undermined by Belhadj and al-Saadi. Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, they claim their abductions were linked to the then prime minister’s infamous deal in the desert in which Gaddafi signed a £120m gas contract for Shell in exchange for support against the rebels who threatened to topple him.

The police investigation into alleged MI6 complicity in the men’s rendition began when journalists and human rights activists stormed the offices of Moussa Koussa – Gaddafi’s long-time intelligence chief – and found documents in which its counter-terrorism director Mark Allen appeared to be congratulating Koussa on the “safe arrival” of Belhadj. Belhadj is now suing Allen for compensation.

“When you talk about other countries where people have been moved about without accountability or disappeared – like Chile under Pinochet – they are put down as some of the most monstrous regimes ever, yet because we’re the good guys and we’re doing it, we’re perfectly prepared to excuse ourselves. But your motives for doing this don’t excuse the behaviour,” Scott says.

Haley is optimistic that despite its limitations, the new inquiry will unearth new information. “Given the political will there’s been to suppress action or accountability over rendition I will be surprised if it goes as far as I’d like it to go, but I think it will take us a few steps further, deepen our understanding and be yet another reminder to those involved that they are not immune,” he says.

But most believe for an inquiry to achieve any real justice, it needs to be carried out in conjunction with one south of the Border.

“There needs to be an inquiry which goes to the heart of whether or not the system of notification for the use by ­aircraft coming from outwith the UK into its airspace and landing at its ­airports is adequate to ensure there is compliance with the UN convention and that the UK is not wittingly or ­unwittingly complicit in extraordinary rendition,” says ­Professor Alan Miller, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. “That inquiry needs to be independent, impartial, transparent and accessible to those who claim to have been victims [of the process].”

With no such inquiry in the offing, the best campaigners can hope for is that Scottish police place enough pressure on the authorities to ensure that in future the country remains a rendition-free zone. “Realistically, the most it will achieve is that the Americans decide it’s not worth taking any chances putting any more of these flights through Scotland,” says Scott. “I realise that, to an extent, that could be seen as a ‘not in my back yard’ approach, but the more countries that do that, the more countries who set that example, the more difficult it will be for rendition to continue.” «

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