Reprieve condemns the British government for its refusal to tackle US allies over rendition flights through Diego Garcia

July 3, 2008

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Reprieve’s research into renditions through Diego Garcia indicates that the reason that British officials failed to secure the expected evidence is because they intentionally failed to ask the right questions of the US, and accepted implausible US assurances at face value.

Earlier this afternoon, David Miliband, the British Foreign Minister, made a written statement to Parliament stating that, in response to a list of possible rendition flights through British territories presented by the British government to its US counterparts, “The United States Government received the list of flights from the UK Government. The United States Government confirmed that, with the exception of two cases related to Diego Garcia in 2002, there have been no other instances in which US intelligence flights landed in the United Kingdom, our Overseas Territories, or the Crown Dependencies, with a detainee on board since 11 September 2001.”

Although the British government admitted in February that it had learned from the US government that two rendition flights had passed through Diego Garcia in 2002, the Foreign Office has explicitly declined to ask the US government for the prisoners’ names, despite Reprieve’s request to do so.

The sadly cynical reason for this is obvious: The British government is hoping not to become further implicated in a scandal in which it is complicit, and knows that, if the names are revealed, those responsible for Britain’s foreign policy will become legally liable to produce evidence that could prove the prisoners’ innocence. This has been illustrated in recent weeks in the case of British resident and Reprieve client Binyam Mohamed, who was recently granted a judicial review to investigate the government’s refusal to provide exculpatory evidence of his rendition and torture.

The Foreign Office’s other serious failure is its apparent inability to question whether its US allies are being truthful about their definition of “renditions.” When wishing to respond in a technically accurate but patently misleading fashion, the Bush Administration simply re-defines accepted legal terms, and this includes the term “rendition” and “US intelligence flights”. The US government has, for example, denied that prisoners in Guantánamo Bay arrived there as a result of “rendition” when every single prisoner there was rendered. For five years the US denied that “rendition flights” used Diego Garcia, but that turned out to be false.

The US government (through President Bush himself on September 6, 2006) denied that the “CIA Secret Prisons Program” still exists when Reprieve has disclosed the existence of 27,000 prisoners in secret US detention. President Bush did this by choosing his words carefully – the prisons are not run by the CIA, but by other branches of the US government. Likewise, the prisoners brought to and through Diego Garcia were not, apparently, on what the US refers to as “US intelligence flights” (it is notable that the Guantánamo flights were referred to as military).

As a result, the British government seems to think that the fact that the US would have to ask permission for a rendition flight means that any such flights never took place. This is intentionally naïve, the US did not ask permission for the two rendition flights and the UK did not learn about them for five years.

Moving beyond the obvious points raised by David Miliband’s announcement, it is also clear that the government has not asked to identify any other flights through Diego Garcia (or, at least, has not mentioned the response to any questions asked). This is lamentable, as the flights that we do not know about are much more likely to provide new information than the ones already confirmed.

In addition, saying that there were no prisoners on the list of flights is simply a red herring; Reprieve maintains that the flights that went through the UK would not have carried prisoners as they were not on the Guantánamo transit route. The proper question is whether those flights were going to commit a rendition (a kidnapping), making the UK complicit in the crime, or some other illegal act (like picking up Libyan intelligence agents, who travelled to Guantánamo to threaten British resident Omar Deghayes in 2004, for example).

It is regrettable that the UK government continues to act the ostrich, and intentionally avert its eyes to US illegality. Reprieve is conducting a full investigation into these issues and suspects that new information clarifying the use of Diego Garcia by the United States will be forthcoming in the next week to ten days. We cannot comment more on specifics at this point.

Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s Director, said, “This remains a transatlantic cover-up of epic proportions. While the British government seems content to accept whatever nonsense it is fed by its US allies, the sordid truth about Diego Garcia’s central role in the unjust rendition and detention of prisoners in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ cannot be hidden forever.”

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Note to editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA. Reprieve currently represents over thirty prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay.