Reprieve written evidence 

Reprieve is an international human rights organization that assists people facing the death penalty, and others affected by abuses associated with the ‘War on Terror’. This submission will focus on our work relating to torture.

Reprieve believes that the UK must lead the way in torture prevention by investigating and ending British complicity in torture. The UK claims to uphold certain values, and a visible breach of these high standards during the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has done much to undermine the global consensus against torture.

The UK’s values are also comprised where Britain fails to intervene strongly to prevent torture and investigate allegations of torture raised by British nationals; and where UK does not press its allies to abide by international minimum standards in relation to prevention, investigation of torture, the inadmissibility of evidence obtained through torture, and the prosecution of those of commit torture.

Reprieve is calling on the Government to:

  • honour a 2010 commitment by the Prime Minister to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the CIA’s torture programme;80
  • publish documents relating to the use of UK territory for rendition flights;
  • review and strengthen the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance process, in particular by increasing transparency and allowing challenges to ministerial decisions;
  • continue and strengthen the representations made by the UK Government in cases where British nationals have raised allegations of torture.

1.Which countries or forms of torture are most worrying?

Torture ‘confessions’

While all instances of torture are prohibited under international law, there will also be a breach of the right to a fair trial; in some cases, there is also a breach of the right to life, when abuses are carried out with the aim of extracting ‘confessions’ which, in turn, are admitted as ‘evidence’ in court – in some cases leading to the imposition of the death penalty and executions.

Reprieve has assisted on a number of cases where prisoners – including British citizens – have been forced to sign statements, and have subsequently been sentenced to death and in some cases executed. Research conducted by Reprieve in Dubai in 2013 found that some 85% of prisoners reported having been forced to sign documents in a language they did not understand.

Of particular gravity is the use of torture to extract false confessions from those who were children at the time of the alleged offence. Reprieve has assisted several prisoners who were children when they were arrested and tortured, including Ali al Nimr, Dawood al Marhoon, and Abdullah Al Zaher82 – three Saudi juveniles whose forced ‘confessions’ were the sole piece of evidence presented at their trials; and Ibrahim Halawa, a student from Dublin who faces a death sentence in Egypt, after being arrested at the age of 17. Ibrahim has been repeatedly tortured.83

British complicity in torture

Examples of the UK’s complicity in War on Terror-era abuses include the joint MI6/CIA kidnap of two families in 2004 – including four children aged 12 and under, and a pregnant woman

  • and their rendition to prisons in Gaddafi’s Libya.84 There is evidence that the CIA at least intended to use the British territory of Diego Garcia as a stopover for one of the rendition flights. The UK government has resisted calls to release the island’s flight records for the relevant period.

Visibly breaching our own high standards not only implicates the UK in the worst abuses – it also provides ‘cover’ for similar abuses by other governments. For example, after Ethiopia’s 2014 kidnap and rendition of British national Andy Tsege – who remains held in that country under sentence of death – the Ethiopian government released a videocriticising the US and the UK for the abuses of the War on Terror, and defending Ethiopia’s (poor) treatment of detainees such as Mr Tsege.85

In more recent years, Reprieve has raised concerns over British security and justice assistance that can be said to have led to, or encouraged, abuses including torture and the death penalty. The Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and Department for International Development all currently provide forms of assistance to different security forces that are accused of torture, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Ethiopia, and Pakistan.86

2.Can you provide examples of diplomatic efforts or other interventions that have been successful in reducing torture in particular countries?

Public and private pressure at the highest possible levels remains an extremely effective way to persuade other governments to end torture. For example, in 2013, following the intervention of Prime Minister David Cameron with the President of the United Arab Emirates, Grant Cameron, Karl Williams and Suneet Jeerh – three British men who had been jailed in theUAEonthebasisofforced‘confessions’–  werepardonedandreleased.  While Mr Cameron’s intervention did not prevent the men’s initial torture, it undoubtedly led to their pardon and early release – demonstrating the importance of public political pressure.

The effectiveness of public scrutiny and political pressure can also been seen in other cases. For example, the UK has joined other Western governments in regularly expressing concern, in public and in private, over the death sentences handed to three Saudi juveniles (as above) on the basis of torture confessions.87 Thus far, this high level of public pressure and international scrutiny appears to have helped to prevent the three juveniles’ executions. By contrast, several other juveniles whose names were not in the public domain – and whose cases, though similar, do not appear to have been raised by other governments – have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year.88

3.What role can the British Government play in reducing torture worldwide?

It is crucial that, in cases where British citizens have been tortured, the UK government makes strong and consistent representations to other countries against torture. This includes demanding that ‘confessions’ extracted through torture are not used in criminal proceedings; and that, where torture is alleged, the authorities conduct medical examinations that meet internationally-agreed standards, undertake an independent investigation, and prosecute those responsible. Pushing for compliance with international law in these cases also gives the UK an opportunity to improve standards for all prisoners at risk of torture.

Where countries are close UK allies, Britain has a particular opportunity – and a responsibility

  • to work towards a reduction in the use of torture. Reprieve is concerned, however, by evidence that where countries with which the UK enjoys close bilateral relations – for example, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Ethiopia – Britain has been hesitant to raise torture concerns. At worst, the government appears to have sought to assist allies, such as Bahrain, in avoiding international criticism over torture.89

Given widespread concerns over British security cooperation with governments accused of torture, it is also essential that effective measures are taken to stop assistance to torture based prosecutions. In particular, the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance guidelines – introduced in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ to guard against UK complicity in abuses – should be revised, to allow challenges to ministerial decisions where risky security assistance has been approved.