HC Deb 01 July 2004 vol 423 cc524-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

6.1 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

I have sought to raise this issue in Parliament since my constituent, Tariq Dergoul, was released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year. Tariq's detention took place during the war on terror, and in that context I shall quote Johan Steyn, a Lord of Appeal: Democracies must defend themselves. Democracies are entitled to try officers and soldiers of enemy forces for war crimes. But it is a recurring theme in history that in times of war, armed conflict or perceived national danger, even liberal democracies adopt measures infringing human rights in ways that are wholly disproportionate to the crisis. This debate revolves around the values that the Prime Minister reaffirmed yesterday—freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Those values hinge on rights, and two of the most important rights in this country are that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that everyone has the right to a fair trial. Today is a historic day on which to hold this debate, because even Saddam Hussein, a man who murdered hundreds of thousands of people and perpetrated genocide against the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs and the Shi'a in southern Iraq, has been given the right by the new sovereign Iraqi Government to stand trial, and that trial will be fair and accord with due process. The right to trial was not accorded to my constituent, Tariq Dergoul, the Tipton three, the other ex-detainees who were released without charge or the current prisoners, who continue to languish in Guantanamo Bay.

I begin with Tariqi's story. In his own words, he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He travelled to Pakistan and then Afghanistan, and admits that he had an ill-conceived entrepreneurial idea to buy property, which was falling in value after the attacks on 11 September, in the area. Whatever happened to Tariq Dergoul, everyone agrees that he had been seriously injured before the Nothern Alliance, which gave him medical treatment, picked him up and sold him to American agents for $5,000. He was taken to Bagram for a month, Kandahar for three months, and then on to Cuba.

Tariq says that in Bagram, when they found out I was British, I was put on a stretcher bed in a room. An American interrogator in civilian clothes came and said, 'You are going to help us. I am your ticket out of here. Tell us what we want to hear and you can go home.' He continues: The second day I was put in a cage. There were seven or eight cages in a row. The cages were big with about twenty people per cage and there was a toilet which was half a barrel at the back … The conditions were absolutely freezing and very icy and there was very loud machinery going on all the time so you could not hear people speak … I was interrogated five or six times in the first week and twenty or twenty-five times in all… I was in extreme pain from the frostbite and my other injuries. I was very weak and could barely stand… I kept asking for medical treatment"— but the medics refused it. He continues: In the interrogation, interrogators were constantly putting to me that I was with Osama Bin Laden and that I was in Tora Bora. They put me under very great pressure and I was in pain and frightened. In the end I agreed with them that I had been in the Tora Bora mountains but I would not agree to say that I had been fighting or that I had met Osama Bin Laden. At this time I did not even understand the significance of the place Tora Bora. He goes on: One of the things that frightened me very much when I was in Bagram was that I saw the way in which other people in adjoining cages were being treated. They all appeared to be Afghans. The guards with guns and baseball bats were outside the cages and were pointing guns at them and they were made to assume squatting positions for hours at a time. If they fell over out of exhaustion, the guards would go in and beat them until they lost consciousness. They called it 'Beat Down' … Another thing I saw in Bagram was two or three people hung by their hands with bags over their heads. They were in a room opposite the cages. There was also the noise of gunshots and people screaming … I really thought the guards would kill me. He continues: After Bagram I was taken to Kandahar … I was constantly taken to interrogation … I was hooded … some of the time … during interrogation. I was interrogated at least three or four times a week for up to seven or eight hours a day. He says that he eventually received the medical treatment that he had been asking for. However, the operation to amputate his toe was done by a trainee medic who was told what to do by a doctor. I was still conscious while the operation was carried out (I had no sensation in my feet) and someone was asking me questions. They were interrogating him while the amputation took place.

He goes on: After three months in Kandahar I was flown to Guantanamo Bay … I was … chained with the three piece suit around my arms, legs and waist. I had goggles on my eyes … I couldn't see or hear anything … There were constant flashes with people taking photographs. He continues: After I arrived in Guantanamo Bay I started to become religious and to put my faith in Allah which got me through the experience. I was interrogated many times". He says that he was also interrogated by British interrogators, and says: I told the British interrogators on at least five times occasions every detail of what was going on in Guantanamo Bay, including the beatings. Later the American interrogators did things that upset me. They threatened to send me to Morocco and Egypt where I would be tortured. They played US music loudly during interrogations. They brought pictures of naked women and dirty magazines and put them on the floor. One of the interrogators … grabbed the Qur'an with his feet up on the table and read it like … a magazine. He made jokes about the Qur'an. He continues: In later interrogations, I was … chained to a ring in the floor, for at least six and sometimes as long as ten hours with no access to sanitary facilities. The interrogators left the room for hours at a time. I had to go to the toilet on the ground. The guards on the other side of the mirror could be heard making jokes … During interrogation, if you moved from a sitting position or closed your eyes, they would take the chair away and make you bend your legs to sit cross-legged. They would then tighten the chain so there was no slack and you couldn't bend to the left or the right. This happened in very many interrogation sessions. I would get cramp and start screaming. The guards would swear at Muslims and curse Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. The descriptions of Tariq's interrogations are extremely long and detailed, and often end with the extreme reaction force arriving.

Tariq said: When the ERF were called, they were always accompanied by someone with a video camera. People will realise the significance of that in the light of events at Abu Ghraib.

Let me summarise Tariq's situation. He was denied medical treatment for three months. His arm had already been amputated; some of his toes were amputated and he suffered many of the treatments that Amnesty International has documented. He describes many instances of that. For example, he said: One time they put me on the floor and jumped on me. I was knocked out and lost consciousness as a result of being beaten. When I woke up there were voices and it was dark. I was on the floor in the same cage with my head against the toilet. He stressed: The main thing is they wouldn't let you keep clean. For months and months, they wouldn't let you have soap. These were the camp rules. They were enforced by the people in command. When they took all your stuff away, they would say, 'It's camp rules. If you don't give it to us, we will attack you."' Again, that is significant in the light of General Miller's involvement in running the regime at Guantanamo Bay and his subsequent transfer to Abu Ghraib. We have seen vividly recorded pictures of the torture that took place there.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is well aware of the United Nations convention against torture. It is worth pointing out that we have signed it and, as signatories, we have agreed the following definition in article 1: 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed". Article 2.2 states: No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. That brings me to one of the British citizens who remains in Guantanamo Bay, Moazzam Begg. He has asked the United Kingdom to register a complaint on his behalf with the United Nations Committee against Torture. I know that the Under-Secretary met a delegation from the Guantanamo commission on human rights recently. Will he let me know whether the Government can register the complaint at the UN Committee against Torture? If he cannot do that now, I should be grateful if he would write to me.

The debate revolves around whether torture and detention without trial are acceptable. After reading much of the material and evidence that is currently available, I conclude that the American Administration believe that torture may be justified. Indeed, in August 2002, the Justice Department advised the White House that torturing al-Qaeda terrorists in captivity abroad "may be justified." That tallies with the report by General Antonio Taguba about Abu Ghraib. It states that abuse there began when General Miller arrived with 30 colleagues for a visit last September and instituted the system that he had already created at Camp Delta.

General Lance Smith, deputy chief of US central command, recently told a Senate hearing that some of the 20 techniques that Miller authorised were banned in Iraq because there, unlike Guantanamo Bay, prisoners were supposedly protected by the Geneva conventions. The techniques include sleep deprivation, binding in uncomfortable positions and the use of excessive heat or cold. Tariq described them to me in vivid detail. He experienced or witnessed them all. All the evidence—including new allegations that the American Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as the person at the top of the command structure, was aware that both physical coercion and sexual humiliation were taking place in Iraqi prisons—points to the fact that the US Administration are willing either to tolerate or actively to promote torture.

Amnesty International has called on the coalition leadership to send a clear signal that torture will not be tolerated in any circumstances, and that the Iraqi people can now live free from such brutal and degrading practices. I would hope that the same would be true for all detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Let us remember that those people have not been charged, which brings us back to the fundamental right of people to have a fair trial, to hear the evidence against them and to have access to a lawyer.

Amnesty has called for a fully independent, impartial and public investigation into all allegations of torture", and I certainly support that. If Iraq is to be the stable country that we hope that it will be, human rights must be a central component. Irene Khan, the secretary general of Amnesty International, has said: If the administration has nothing to hide, it should immediately end incommunicado detention and grant access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International and the United Nations, to all detention facilities. The letter from Amnesty, containing the request for a public investigation, was also signed by Desmond Tutu and many others, and I certainly endorse that plea.

That is pertinent to the case of Moazzam Begg. His father has requested the British Government to do everything that they can to allow him to visit his son, whose physical and mental health has deteriorated dramatically. He has also asked whether he could be accompanied by the leading forensic psychiatrist in the field, Dr. James McKeith. I know, having spoken to the Minister and to the Foreign Secretary, that the British Government are working hard on these issues, but the fact remains that our citizens are not being given the right to see a lawyer and have not had the right to medical treatment. Article 3 of the European convention on human rights bans torture and inhumane and degrading treatment.

The final issue that I want to raise is the situation facing ex-detainees who return here. As the Tipton three found out when they returned home, and as Tariq has discovered, there simply is not enough help and support available. In fact, the Tipton three believe that there has been none. They have received death threats and have passed on more than 30 of them to the police, who said that they would be investigated. However, to date, that has not happened, and I hope that the Minister will be able to pass on a request to his Home Office colleagues to ensure that it does. Instead, the Tipton three have been subjected to Richard Littlejohn writing in The Sun the day before yesterday that the "Tipton Taliban are home". So, they have received no trial from the Americans, yet they now face a trial by media here.

Tariq's situation is equally grave. He has had terrible problems finding housing because he was considered to be "intentionally homeless". It was not his intention to be detained, abused and tortured for two years. I remain extremely concerned about his situation, and I would be most grateful if the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea could use its discretion to prevent his return to Tower Hamlets, where his case is well known and where he and his family have been threatened. His disability living allowance has also been refused because he has not been resident in the UK for the requisite number of weeks in the last year, but that was because he was being held against his will in Guantanamo Bay.

The Kafkaesque nightmare for Tariq and the Tipton three continues, even though they are now, in theory, free from all that. As for Moazzam Begg and the others, their situation remains extremely grave. I thank the Minister for the work that he has done on this matter, and I thank the Foreign Secretary for the time that he has taken to discuss it with me in private. For the record, however, it seems to many people, including me, that the Americans use "torture lite". For the full-calorie version, they ship prisoners to Arab countries. None the less, what they are using is torture, and it still kills people.

My constituent's story exposes both the method and the madness. The method is sadistic, illegal and immoral, and it is mad for intelligence services to use the product, which is unreliable and inaccurate. I trust that the British Government will uphold our obligations under international conventions and end the legal and moral black hole that has wrecked Tariq Dergoul's life.

6.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue and many people will share the concerns that she expressed. Perhaps I should start by outlining the Government's record on the welfare of the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and the considerable efforts that we have been making to try to resolve their situation.

As I mentioned in March, the last time that we debated Guantanamo Bay, we have done more than any other Government to look after the interests of nationals detained there. From the outset, we have actively encouraged the United States Government to resolve the matter. We have conducted intensive and complex discussions with the US Government about the British detainees since their detention. We have held more, and higher level, talks with the US than any other Government who have nationals detained there. We have actively pursued the resolution of those cases.

The Government's position, reported frequently to Parliament, has been that the detainees should either be tried fairly in accordance with international standards or be returned to the UK. Last July, we expressed publicly our reservations about the US military commissions and the US Government suspended legal proceedings against two of the British detainees who had been designated for trial by the commissions. Those proceedings remain suspended. Subsequently, after a lengthy series of discussions with the US, led for the British side by the Attorney-General, we concluded that the military commissions process would not provide sufficient guarantees of a fair trial according to international standards. Therefore, we requested that the nine British detainees be returned to the UK.

As my hon. Friend is aware, we successfully secured the return of five of the British detainees, including her constituent, Mr. Dergoul. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary explained in his statement to the House on 24 February, we agreed with the US Government to continue discussions about the remaining four. Those discussions continue. The Government will work to resolve the situation of those four.

Throughout the past two years, we have also been very conscious of the importance of safeguarding the welfare of the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay. No Government have taken more interest in the welfare of their nationals than the UK's. We were the first to visit our nationals detained there, within days of their arrival, and have seen them more often to check on their welfare than any other Government hale in relation to their nationals. British officials have visited Guantanamo Bay seven times, most recently in March. On each occasion, a report on the condition of the detainees has been given to their families and to Parliament. We will continue to keep them informed of the detainees' circumstances and of other related developments.

My hon. Friend has given a graphic description of the alleged conditions in Bagram air base in Afghanistan and in Kandahar. I regret that I am not in a position to comment on those. As regards living conditions in Guantanamo Bay, however, detainees are housed in indoor accommodation with individual sleeping, toilet and washing facilities, and air ventilation.

Ms King

Some would say that the air ventilation was used as a method of torture.

Mr. Mullin

Yes, I am aware of the allegations made about the misuse—alleged misuse—of the air conditioning.

The detainees are able to practise their religion and have access to reading and writing materials. In addition to checking on the overall living conditions, we have raised individual health concerns of the detainees with the United States authorities, who have addressed them. We will continue to do so as necessary. Our visits have found that medical facilities at Guantanamo Bay are of a high standard. We have also pursued other welfare issues with the US authorities, such as delays in mail and lack of exercise. As a result, we have been able to secure improvements in the conditions of the British detainees. For example, they are now being given more time to take exercise.

Ms King

May I make an import ant point? They were not allowed to practise their religion freely; their prayers were interrupted regularly. Prayer time was used to search the cells, and they feel strongly that their religion was under attack throughout their detention.

Mr. Muffin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that on record.

We do have outstanding concerns about the conditions of detention of some of the remaining British detainees, which we are actively pursuing with the US authorities. The families are aware of that, and we are keeping them informed of developments. It would not be appropriate or helpful to say more about the personal circumstances of the remaining detainees.

I am of course aware of the allegations of mistreatment made by Mr. Dergoul and the other British men formerly detained at Guantanamo Bay, who returned to the UK earlier this year. Mr. Dergoul has alleged that he was beaten by the immediate reaction force, a riot control unit in Guantanamo, and that the beatings were taped. Other British detainees who have returned to the UK have written to President Bush to say that they were systematically abused in Guantanamo.

During every welfare visit by British officials to the British detainees, the detainees were given the opportunity to express any concerns about their treatment. None of them alleged that they were beaten at Guantanamo Bay in the way that some have now claimed. I might add that none of the men has approached the Government about the issue since their release. We do, however, take all allegations of abuse seriously, so we have raised the allegations with the US. The American authorities have told us that they have no reason to believe that these British detainees were abused; however, at our request, the US is examining the allegations in detail. I understand that they intend to respond to them fully—which includes the question of whether the work of the immediate reaction force was taped.

At the same time as respecting the need to resolve the British detainees' circumstances and look after their welfare, we have had to respect the need to pursue the fight against international terrorism. It is important for us to remember the context in which the detentions took place. The attack on 11 September was the most appalling terrorist attack ever: more than 3,000 people died on the US mainland, including 67 British citizens. Following the attacks, thousands of individuals believed to be al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters or their supporters were detained. The majority were released in Afghanistan, but those whom the US deemed to pose a substantial risk were sent by the US to Guantanamo for detention and questioning about their knowledge of al-Qaeda. As a result, valuable information has been gained that has helped the international community to fight terrorism.

I repeat that the welfare of British nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay has been, and remains, a priority for the British Government. We will continue to work to resolve the situation of the four British nationals who are still there.

The hon. Lady asked me some questions about Moazzam Begg. I will respond to her in writing later.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Six o'clock.