Turning a Blind Eye to Torture? UPDATED

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald may finally increase the pressure on the Australian government about how willing it has been to turn a blind eye to the use of torture by our ally in the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Last month, the highest law court in the UK ruled that even in terrorism cases, no British court can consider evidence obtained under torture. In the words of Lord Nicholls: “Torture is not acceptable. This is a bedrock moral principle in this country.”

It is a very sad indictment on how far principles have declined in leading democracies in recent years that such questions even have to be raised, although it is good that such a fundamental principles has been reaffirmed. Less pleasing is the fact that a majority decision by the lower Court of Appeal in the UK ruled that such evidence could be used, provided that the U.K. “neither procured nor connived at” the torture.

Even more sobering, there is no certainty how the Australian High Court might rule in a similar case.

Controversy is growing in Europe over what local officials in various countries knew about the practice known as ‘rendition’, where people suspected of terrorist involvement have been transported by US officials to third countries where they can be subjected to torture – see Europe Complicit in CIA Dirty Work: Investigator and EU Arrest Warrants Issued for Rendition for example. As with the ongoing problems in Iraq, it appears that this practice by our key ally is generating significant political heat for governments in the USA, UK and Europe, but not, so far, in Australia.

According to Wilkinson’s article:

The legal implications of Habib’s case and scores like it have triggered a global debate on the CIA’s renditions policy, which is straining relations between the US and its European allies. Governments in Germany and Italy have been caught up in investigations of these kidnappings, while the CIA’s inspector-general in Washington is reportedly investigating as many as 36 cases of so-called “erroneous renditions”. The first of scores of expected lawsuits against the CIA has been filed in the US.

It may be that the lack of major controversy in Australia is because there has not been enough evidence of this practice impacting on Australians at all. Although Mamdouh Habib has certainly alleged he was tortured in Egypt for many months prior to being taken to Guantanamo Bay, the government has basically just taken a “we know nothing” stance, making it hard to progress the allegations.

However, Sydney Morning Herald piece – “What Should We Believe” – by Marion Wilkinson contains a lot more detail about what happened to Habib, and what the Australian government knew, than has come into the public arena before (as far as I am aware anyway).

The (US) military psychiatrist diagnosed Habib with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and a third psychiatric disorder. His “issues”, according to the psychiatrist, included “recollection of torture he experienced in a foreign country”. The US doctors began treating Habib with antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs.

Days before that evaluation, the then Australian attorney-general, Daryl Williams, told reporters that “US authorities have advised that Mr Habib is in good health”. His statement followed similar public assurances by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, that Habib was “in good health”, after he was transported to a US military prison in Afghanistan on the way to Guantanamo Bay. These assurances on Habib’s health followed briefings by the Department of Foreign Affairs to reporters insisting the Australian Government did not know how Habib had been delivered to Egypt and why, six months later, he was in US custody in Guantanamo Bay.

Ever since, the Howard Government has refused to acknowledge that Habib, an Australian citizen, was kidnapped by the Central Intelligence Agency in Pakistan and “rendered” to one of the most torture-prone security services in the world. One former Howard cabinet minister told the Herald he could not recall a government official ever raising a legal question over Habib’s transfer to Egypt when it happened.

Marion Wilkinson was one of the co-authors of the book “Dark Victory”, one of the most thorough and incisive political books I have read. It covered the facts surrounding the lead up to and conduct of the Tampa incident, the Pacific Solution and the 2001 election. Even people who would not agree with the political conclusions within the book could not fault the meticulous, detailed research and the comprehensive evidence provided. She would have had to do a lot of investigative work to produce this piece, although there is certainly a lot more information that has yet to come to light (and clearly our government does not want it to):

Today, a year after Habib was released from Guantanamo Bay, there is growing evidence that the Australian Government suppressed critical facts in the case and repeatedly misled the public about what it knew about his rendition and torture.
Hundreds of documents on the case, requested by the Herald under freedom of information law, have been released to the paper heavily censored. Some, along with interviews with former government officials, politicians and lawyers, raise serious questions about a government cover-up.

Specifically, one former government official has told the Herald that despite the Government’s claims that the Egyptian Government never confirmed Habib’s imprisonment, ASIO was involved in its own negotiations with the Egyptian intelligence services to allow an Australian intelligence officer to interrogate Habib in the Egyptian prison.

Habib has long claimed that during his time in Egypt he was interviewed by an ASIO officer. He also alleges he was shown documents from his home in Sydney that had been seized in the ASIO raid.

People should not comfort themselves that ‘this won’t happen to me’ or it will only happen to people who have done something wrong. I have no idea what Mamdouh Habib may or may not have done, but I do know that mistaken identity happens and I also know that government agencies sometimes act on the basis of false or flawed intelligence. That is why any law which allows security agencies to arrest, detain and interrogate people in secret is dangerous. The rule of law was built up painstakingly over centuries for very good reasons. It is not perfect, but its core components should certainly not be shredded.

The absolute principle of never using, supporting or relying on torture is what is at stake here. None of the material above is in any way a comment on what Mamdouh Habib himself may or may not have done. It is about what democratic countries have done or been complicit in doing and the need to hold them to account and to ensure such things are condemned and do not happen again.

PS On the related matter of how things are in Iraq, it’s worth reading this post on the Baghdad Burning blog. It’s a personal reflection on just one of the many recent killings of a local person. (found over at Barista)

ADDITION: In response to a comment left by a reader asking why I used the phrase the “so-called” war on terror, I thought I’d also add a link to this article – entitled “Phoney War” – from The Spectator at the start of last year. The Spectator is a Conservative leaning magazine, but with a record of free thinking rather than just parroting a party line. The article starts with:

If the leaders of the Western world want to do our security a favour, they could adopt a New Year resolution to economise on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ in their rhetoric. This proposal is based not upon indulgence towards al-Qa’eda or the IRA, but upon the need to think clear-headedly about how best to protect our societies.

It ends with:
The ‘war on terror’ is a phrase cynically abused by President Bush to further his own re-election. Now that he has secured another four-year lease on the White House, it would be a boon to the world if he abandoned unhelpful sloganising.

Everything in between is worth reading too.

ADDITION 2 – 18th Jan: Here are some segments from an article by John Major, former Conservative Party Prime Minister of Britain, which appeared originally in The Spectator magazine. I’ve added it in part to elaborate on some of the points raised in the comments thread below. (I’d put all of it up, but that would probably breach copyright laws)

No worldwide terrorist conspiracy – John Major

If the world is to succeed in combating terrorism, then politicians and statesmen must strip away old prejudices and think afresh. That will not always be a comfortable thing to do, for at times it will mean trying to see things from the perspective of the terrorist. I remember how uneasy I felt as prime minister when I spent many hours trying to think myself into the mind of the Provisional IRA. What I had to do then others must do now — but on a much wider scale.

Terrorism and democracy are polar opposites. As they confront one another, we must ask: is it possible that such a shadowy concept as terrorism can be identified, isolated and defeated? Yes, it can, though we must bear in mind that terrorist groups are rarely entirely destroyed: smaller groups, sometimes made up of the hardest of hardliners, replace them. But, over time, terror can be beaten and the potency of its threat removed.

So, if democracy can win, how can it do so? The answer is complex. One thing we must do right away is rid ourselves of the notion that there is a worldwide terrorist conspiracy. Certainly, some groups have widespread and growing tentacles. Sometimes there is co-operation between several organisations, for some terrorists are mercenaries for hire, unconcerned by any particular cause and motivated only by hatred and greed. But there is no worldwide conspiracy. Most terrorist groups are close-knit, relatively small organisations with their own causes, however perverted, and their own ambitions, however ill-conceived. Their causes may overlap — and occasionally merge — but they are not joined together in one single organisation.

The key here is to recognise that we must take action against existing terror groups today, and implement political measures to prevent the contagion re-emerging tomorrow. To achieve this, all nations threatened by terrorism have a role: a coalition of the willing must embrace every country that wishes to be democratic. These nations must work together to deny terrorists their safe havens, cut off their financing and stem the flow of recruits. They must also, and above all, deny them their causes.

And, to defeat the ideological threat they pose, we must understand the motives that drive them and seek to re-educate those who sympathise with them. We must accept that we cannot win by military power alone, but concede that we cannot win without it.
To win, many nations must be engaged in what will be a complex and protracted battle, not least of minds. International co-operation is vital: we need to co-ordinate action against terror, inhibit the movement of terrorists, attack money-laundering, penalise nations that fund terror, reduce their supply of weapons and agree worldwide extradition of terrorist suspects. Yet rendition can only be counter-productive. It is not wise policy (my emphasis).

But these measures alone, though vital policing actions, are not enough to bring victory. We must go further. We must ask ourselves: what motivates terrorism? What encourages non-terrorists tacitly to support them? What can we do to make terrorism so abhorrent as utterly to isolate the terrorist? The answers to these questions are not always palatable. Radical ideology has fed the perception that the religion of Islam is under attack. Al-Qa’eda asserts this every day. Radicals use this belief as a recruiting sergeant. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have done much to feed this perception that Islam is under attack. So has the failure to bring the Middle East peace process to a successful conclusion.

The radicals are wrong, but their propaganda is effective. To rebut it, democracies must lessen the chance of demagogues exploiting hardship to promote terrorism. They must fight for the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured. Words alone will not do; they must accept obligations that illustrate the morality of democracy. They must seek to alleviate poverty, disease and injustice.

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  1. Hey, Geoff, didn’t I see that episode of Wildside? As I recall, torturing the nasty terrorist didn’t help and the bomb went off killing the nice policewoman’s son.

    The scenario doesn’t work in reality. No terrorist worth his/her salt would delay a blast longer than it took for him to get out of the area. The greater the delay, the larger the probability that the bomb will be discovered. Therefore by the time it takes the police to validate his story it would be too late.

    The only way it would work would be to torture without delay, without pausing varifying the story. This would mean torturing every Aussie joker who jests with a Customs Officer “Yeah, mate, I’ve got a bomb stuck up me fundament”. Now, I dislike jokers and would love to see them all up there on Vlad’s impaling pole. However, you have to admit that you’re going to need one hell of a spin team once the punters smell the corpses.

  2. Didn’t watch Wildside… is it a kiddies program?

    I gather you missed the point too HK. Don’t worry it seems most here do. That’s the problem when you surround yourself with people and sources which feed from the same idealogical pond. Right Andrew?

  3. Cathey Bannister. From Wendy. Actually i have a problem with my shoulder and neck and as slack as it sounds i dont really take much time with typing when itrs only a blot. My family run an international school of langauge and i always topped the class in spelling and english fyi Just ask Ken Banister he might tell you as Beth Bannister would if she could.Anyway Suz i would not loose a great deal of sleep over it and how very kind of you to point it out.
    Ban live Exports of Animals and send bitchy unkind people instead. You wont be alone dear.There are quite a few of you that need sorting out. See you on and on.At least i use my real id.

  4. Geoff,

    No, Wildside wasn’t a kiddies’ program, or I’m sure you’d be a fan. Probably past your bed time.

    The bottom line is that torture isn’t an efficacious method for drawing or testing truth. While it is hellishly difficult to get this sort of controlled experiment past ethics committees these days (they just don’t let you apply electrodes to the genitalia anymore), there is a wealth of evidence that the probability of getting truth out of a person using torture is zero. Me, I admit to being a Nazi war criminal every time I get my Brazilian upgraded.

  5. *sigh

    I’ve already covered the sensible part of that HK.
    The rest I don’t bother with.

    The scenario is about choices… not how effective torture is.

    Where you hide your swastika has nothing to do with me.

  6. No, the scenario doesn’t work, ref my first post (52). It only works if the police/ASIO have already have perfect information that the person has definitely planted an incendiary device. If that information is imperfect, then there is the chance that they will be torturing an innocent person, and that that innocent person will tell them whatever it takes to stop them from torturing them. They’d probably have the whole of Lakemba interned before they realised it was rubbish.

    They might as well consult gibblets or read tea leaves. Leave aside the morality, torture just doesn’t work.

    In your (unlikely, unrealistic and oversimplied) scenario, your evil man has absolutely no motivation to tell the truth. All he has to do is say something which will get the cops off his back until the bomb goes off. Like, it’s on the 6.17 Central to Bomaderry. By the time they realise that the train has been cancelled and they’re stranded in Port Kembla, the bomb under the clock in the QVB will have blown all and sundry back to the motherland.

    Which is why torture doesn’t work. It’s also unconscionable, meaning there are no grounds on which it can be justified.

  7. *sigh

    The scenario works a treat HK.
    (another attempted cop-out)

    BTW the EVIL MAN has been id’d by Interpol, the police have no doubts about his claims.
    (another skimmer)

    The fact you still don’t get it points to you having a problem with it… nothing else.

    The question is…

    Would YOU resort to some form of torture in order to try and get the information from the EVIL MAN? Or would you let everyone die without trying?

    The choice is your HK.

    You it seems would do nothing…. hence…

    No torture and certain death to the population.

    Now you may have tortured him and failed.

    The crux of the problem is you reconciling what you did… not only to yourself but to everyone left behind.

    Need I repeat this again for anyone else.

  8. No Geoff, there’s no need to keep repeating the same thing. A bunch of people have already responded to your scenario and related arguments… and you’ve responded by just having a shot at them all.

    Reading ‘widely’ clearly isn’t much use if it all comes from the same ideological pond. It seems to have left you having to rely on one straw man, while telling everyone who disagrees with you that they are ‘skimming’, ‘avoiding/missing the point’, just ‘not getting it’ or ‘copping out’, regardless of what they actually say (and of course all of us who oppose torture are also people who wouldn’t lift a finger to save 1000s of lives, just to make clear the strawman is sitting on a high horse).

    In any case, I think it’s been pretty much the same arguments back and forth since around comment #25 (although now that I think of it, the reference in #37 was useful – thanks for that)

  9. Gee you are funny Andrew.
    BTW, I don’t consider pointing out where people have missed the point as having a shot at them Andrew. But I do understand why you’d see it that way.

    If people make claims that clearly show they have not read the scenario properly, I call it skimming. Would you prefer amnesia? Short term or long term do you think?

    Funny isn’t it when the so-called progressive Left get put into a corner by someone using their own tactics. The whinging starts and never lets up.

    Yes it has been the same argument as it has from the moment I posted the scenario.

    It’s always the same argument with the PC brigade.

    Makes me ashamed of being of the Left persuasion myself.

    Any time you’re ready to move on so am I… always have been. I’m just courteous enough to respond to all and sundry.

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