'Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment'


by Jim Addington

When David Blunkett threatens to resign from Amnesty International you know that this worldwide humanitarian organisation has touched a raw nerve. Blunkett is now in the public spotlight for the effects of his Terrorism Act of 2001, which had built-in protection against misuse. This was when the Lords would only agree to the Bill if it made provision for a review by Privy Councillors after two years.

Almost to the day the committee, led by Lord Newton, reported that the law which has allowed the imprisonment of 14 foreign nationals resident in Britain, without charge and without any term to their detention, should be replaced as a matter of urgency. There is no sign that the government is going to take any notice of the demand.

There can be no doubt that the treatment of these people, charged with no offence, held in British prisons without charge, locked up for 22 hours a day is "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment. Those words are the basis of the general definition of torture, which is absolutely prohibited under international law in the 1984 Convention, ratified by 134 states - even during a war. Article 7 of the International Covenant of Political Rights repeats the same mantra. It is supported by Article 10 which states that "all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person".

The actions of the Blair government, supported by the vast majority of Labour MPs since September 11, 2001, show increasing manipulation of the law to provide for arrest and detention on suspicion of terrorist intentions and affiliations. The 'war on terrorism' has become a tool of government coercion.

The detention of the foreign nationals in Belmarsh Prison, some of whom are severely handicapped and most of whom are receiving treatment for depression, has been attacked by Amnesty International. The human rights group says that the UK government has set up a 'shadow criminal justice system' for non-UK nationals. The legislation "effectively allows non-nationals to be treated as if they have been charged with a criminal offence, convicted without a trial and sentenced to an open-ended term of imprisonment. In no respect can this be considered just". Amnesty is collecting signatures for a petition against this inhuman action. (For more information and to sign the petition visit their website at www.amnesty.org.uk) According to Amnesty, David Blunkett recently "refused to rule out reliance on material obtained by torture around the world in his decisions about who is detained".

In a pre-Christmas action in Parliament David Blunkett has also pushed through the House of Commons an agreement with the US government to allow easy extradition of British subjects for trial in America without having to produce evidence of guilt. All that is required is evidence of identification. This is an example of retrospective legislation which could lead to a British citizen facing the death penalty for certain offences. As Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democratic Party leader said "such legislation should be properly debated and not slipped through in the pre-Christmas rush".

Our government's slavish support for the war on Afghanistan and the attack on Iraq seems to have silenced its ability to make any criticism of the arrogant American use of internment, in degrading conditions, of prisoners not only at Camp Delta but in Iraq itself and on the islands of Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean. These were leased by Britain to the United States government after its inhabitants had been removed to what has been described as the slums of Port Louis, in Mauritius.

In spite of British High Court directions to the government to allow them to return nothing has been done to help them. The Washington Post reported recently that suspects had been sent for "rendering" (physical and mental interrogation) at Camp Justice in Diego Garcia, and camps in Yemen, Jordan and Syria, before being transferred to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Mark Littleworth, a lawyer member of the staff of Liberty, warned at a rally outside Downing Street on 13th December about the situation at Belmarsh top-security prison. He said that the arrest and imprisonment in Belmarsh prison "was on the suspicion of a politician, which is an outrage in the context of a war on terrorism". The passing of the 2001 Terrorism Act "was the most draconian event of my life", he said.  "If we do not draw the line (and oppose the legislation) we will be next".

A day later in an article in The Observer headed, 'The biggest casualty in this war on terror is us', John Humphreys warned about the attack on human rights in Britain and the United States. He quoted the example of Martin Niemoller, the German pastor. "When Hitler attacked the Jews, I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. When he attacked the Catholics, I was not a catholic. Then they came for the communists, I did not speak out as I was not a communist. When they came for me, there was nobody to speak for me."

The British government is engaged in manipulating the criminal justice system and is beginning to resemble some of the pre-war European fascist states. It is appalling that so few Labour MPs are prepared to put their careers on the line and withdraw support from this government.