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Speaking out on British torture

09 May 2014

Churches should protest against atrocities committed by the UK, says Nicholas Mercer

THE parish of St Mary the Virgin, Gillingham, in Dorset, where I am serving my title, recently completed a week of fasting as part of Stand Fast for Justice. This campaign has been organised by the human-rights charity Reprieve, and is designed to bring attention to the continued detention and force-feeding of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Ordinary parishioners from a range of backgrounds, few of whom would be described as radical or especially political, felt motivated enough to join in. The fast was also part of a wider protest against continuing British involvement in human-rights abuses in the war on terror, including rendition and complicity in torture, and the Justice and Security Act 2013. The new Act compounds the abuses by denying justice to those who make claims against the Government, and enabling the authorities to cover up their crimes.

All this struck a particular chord with me as, before ordination in 2011, I had served in the British Army as a legal officer. Over 20 years, I saw operational service in Northern Ireland and Bosnia Herzegovina, but it was my post as the Command Legal Adviser to the HQ 1st (UK) Armoured Division in the Iraq War in 2003 which opened my eyes to the plight of prisoners held captive by coalition forces.

While visiting the prisoner-of-war camp in Umm Qasr in 2003, I witnessed Iraqi prisoners' being hooded and placed in stress positions by interrogators before questioning. What I had inadvertently stumbled on were prisoners being subjected to what have been termed the "five techniques".

These include hooding, stress positions, food-, and sleep-deprivation, and white noise. They have been described as a "barbaric assault on the mind", and were outlawed by the European Court of Human Rights in 1978. Despite this, however, they had reappeared in Iraq, and were being employed by interrogators, who said that they took their orders directly from London rather than the normal chain of command.

When I complained formally to the Commander British Forces that such techniques were in breach of international law, there was an immediate protest, and an assertion that the techniques were part of UK doctrine.

Despite a temporary moratorium, lasting about three months, the five techniques were resumed, and, in September 2003, an Iraqi, Baha Mousa, was beaten to death in British custody before interrogation - something that I attribute to the moral ambivalence of the UK Government in relation to prisoners. It was clear that, despite ministers' being aware of allegations of prisoner-abuse as early as March 2003, they failed to take any action to prevent future ill-treatment.

THIS was, however, only the beginning of my journey. After leaving the army as a lieutenant-colonel in 2011, I was asked to review Cruel Britannia: A secret history of torture by Ian Cobain (Portobello Books, 2012). The book is deeply disturbing, and outlines the use of torture by the UK from the end of the Second World War, throughout the colonial campaigns that lasted from 1945 until 1967, and then on to Northern Ireland in the decades that followed, and Iraq from 2003.

The book provides a counter-narrative to the image of British fair play and decency by exposing the cruelty that Britain has often inflicted on those whom we have captured, and the even greater political deceit in covering our tracks.

In the book, one senior policeman in Kenya describes the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners by the British as worse than anything he had experienced as a PoW under the Japanese in the Second World War. It also sets out how those who objected to such treatment invariably lost their jobs, and those who were complicit in it and covered it up were duly rewarded for their loyalty.

These attempts at a cover-up have continued over the years, into the tenure of the current British Government. In the case of the Mau Mau - which recently ended up in the High Court - the lawyer for the claimants described denials by the present administration as "morally repugnant".

EVEN more recently, the Intelligence Services have overseen the introduction of secret courts through the Justice and Security Act 2013. The primary purpose of the Act is to cover up British complicity in rendition and torture during the "war on terror".

If someone makes a claim for damages today for rendition and torture, he or she cannot see the evidence held by the State, or cross-examine witnesses, or even have the lawyer of his or her choice. A government lawyer is "appointed", who can neither seek the claimant's instructions nor discuss evidence with him or her. The claimant is not even entitled to know the reasons why the case has been decided against him or her, as the reasons are secret. In simple terms, the trials have been rigged, so these secrets can remain buried for another generation.

The Act was opposed by more than 700 lawyers, the Law Society, and the Bar Council, as well as international and national human-rights organisations. There was not as much public response as many had hoped for, however. This is an area that is not widely understood by the general public, and the problems are obvious mainly to the legal community who work in it.

THE week of fasting in our parish was to highlight the plight of prisoners, and also to expose the continued attempts by the British Government to hide its complicity in rendition and torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. It focused

on a British citizen, Shaker Aamer, who is being held in Guantánamo Bay. Although twice cleared for release by the authorities, Mr Aamer has been unable to return to theUK, for reasons that are far from clear.

The suspicion is that he is being denied the right to come home because the UK Security Services have, allegedly, been complicit in his rendition and torture. There could be a fear of exposure if he comes back to Britain. Whatever the reason, he has been incarcerated, without charge, for the past 12 years. He has not even seen his youngest son, who was born after he was rendered (or kidnapped).

I preached on the plight of prisoners at an Amnesty International service in Salisbury Cathedral last October. The sermon found its way across the Atlantic to Guantánamo Bay, and elicited a response from Mr Aamer himself, in which he thanked the parishioners for their witness to his plight and that of others. 

He wrote:

Please thank him and his congregation for fasting, and for their prayers. Please let them know that their love would somehow have reached my heart all the way here in Guantánamo Bay, even if I have not been told about it by you. Let them know prayers and thoughts do reach people, no matter where they are and somehow I could feel the peace and happiness inside. I wouldlike them to encourage others to do the same; by caring, we can bring justice to this world. It is silence in the face of govern-ment injustice that is causingthe suffering of people here and in dark places all around the world.

Because of the complex legal issues and the way the Government and Security Services have laid the ground, legally, to ensure that unpalatable truths remain hidden, this is a difficult campaign to explain to the public. Support, however, came from the most unlikely sources in our parish, including a 12-year-old and a gentleman who remarked that fasting was easier when you are 90.

"God hears the groans of prisoners," says Psalm 102.20. He does indeed, and the cries of prisoners will be even more audible if others join this protest. Quite rightly, we hear condemnation about torture in Syria, but until the UK ends its complicity in its own rendition and torture, there will continue to be a counter-narrative.

The Revd Nicholas Mercer is Assistant Curate of St Mary the Virgin, Gillingham, Dorset, and a former British Army officer.


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