John Hutton rendition
Jacob Silberberg/AP

Rendition of Prisoners Ignites Controversy in Britain

February 27, 2009 05:30 PM
by Josh Katz
The British defense secretary said the country was involved in “extraordinary rendition” in 2004, angering human rights groups and fueling a debate about how prisoners should be handled.

Britain Debates Rendition

Defense Secretary John Hutton’s announcement regarding the “extraordinary rendition” of terrorist suspects has generated controversy in Britain. The government had previously denied knowledge on the matter, but Hutton told MPs in the House of Commons on Feb. 26 that officials had known about the rendition of two suspects since 2004, and “it should have been questioned at the time,” The Times of London reports.

Apparently, then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Home Secretary Charles Clarke received information about the rendition in April 2006, but they deny having seen the papers.

Hutton said he first learned of the incident in December, according to The Washington Post. The two men who were detained are Pakistani and have been held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan since 2004, contravening a U.S.-British agreement saying that “no person captured with assistance” from the British military “will be removed from the territory of Iraq without prior consultation.”

Britain apprehended the suspects in Iraq, but then put them in U.S. custody. The United States then transferred them to Afghanistan for interrogation. Human rights groups have censured the act of transferring suspects to countries that permit torture. The United States considers the suspects “unlawful enemy combatants,” the Times writes.

Conservatives in the House of Commons have expressed their criticism on the matter. “This statement avoids the principal public issue, which is the charge about complicity by United Kingdom forces operating in Iraq outside the multinational division south east,” said conservative shadow security minister Crispin Blunt in response to Hutton’s announcement, according to the Times of London. “This is a glaring hole and must be addressed.”

The Pentagon has accepted culpability for the episode. “There was a level of formal coordination that should have taken place with respect to a transfer of this nature,” spokesman Bryan Whitman said, according to the Post. “Unfortunately, that did not occur in this case. It was an error.”

Hutton said that the detained individuals are members of the organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has ties to al-Qaida. Also according to Hutton, “The US Government has explained to us that they were moved to Afghanistan because of a lack of relevant linguists necessary to interrogate them effectively in Iraq,” according to the Times.

The detained individuals are still in Afghanistan. According to Hutton, the United States told Britain that it is not “possible or desirable” to send the suspects back to their home countries or Iraq, according to the Times. Hutton did add, however, that the United States assured Britain that the individuals have been treated humanely.

Background: Prisoner status is a major issue in United States and Britain

The situation with Britain will probably damage President Barack Obama’s plan to send released Guantanamo Bay prisoners to other countries, according to The Washington Post. In January, Obama ordered the shutdown of Guantanamo within a year. Other nations have also criticized the United States for possible human rights violations in Bagram base, where a large new facility is being constructed. There are currently about 650 prisoners at Bagram, and 245 at Guantanamo.

Guantanamo prisoners also won more rights when they challenged their conditions in federal courts. However, the Obama administration said last week that “it would continue the Bush administration’s policy of not granting to Bagram detainees” the same rights, according to the Post.

Hutton’s announcement comes at a time when detainment is a hot button issue in Britain. The government is also under fire for permitting aircraft carrying abductees to refuel on British soil. Guantanamo detainee and British citizen Binyam Mohamed, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, claims that the United States transferred him to Morocco and tortured him there for 18 months; he also says that Britain was complicit in it, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Reports later surfaced that the United States “had used the British Indian Ocean outpost of Diego Garcia to refuel while terrorism suspects were being secretly moved,” the Herald writes. “The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, admitted the incidents after the then US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, made information public that showed the two suspects had been on flights to Guantanamo Bay and Morocco in 2002 after stopping on Diego Garcia, a US base on British soil.” The United States at first said that such claims were untrue, but later “admitted it had misled the British Government.”

Opinion & Analysis: Rendition shouldn’t be a problem

Not everyone condemns the actions of the British government. Crispin Black of The Guardian says “there can be little doubt what two members of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba were trying to do in Iraq in 2004,” and “taking them on and then handing them over to the Americans was an entirely reasonable thing to do.” He goes on to say that, “transferring them to custody in Afghanistan (near their own training camps, for goodness’ sake) hardly warrants the term ‘extraordinary rendition.’”

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