Credibility Gap

Journal of Foreign Relations column –

Egypt’s deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, lying on a stretcher in a cage, at the start of his trial has provided some of the most vivid images in recent days. A ruthless and proud man, who could do no wrong during his thirty-year rule, pleaded “not guilty” to all charges of corruption and violence against peaceful demonstrators, whose uprising eventually swept him from power. As Mubarak and his co-defendants appeared in court, thousands in Cairo streets greeted the event with jubilation and disbelief and millions watched on television.

The charges related to the killings of protestors in his final days in power convey no more than a fraction of the brutal repression under Mubarak’s regime. For it imprisoned, tortured and killed countless Egyptians. Its record includes collaboration in the torture of people abducted from other parts of the world in the CIA’s “war on terror” – people handed over to the Egyptian secret police after September 11, 2001.

At the same time, a far more disturbing episode was unfolding in the United Kingdom, America’s leading ally in the “war on terror.” That unquestioned support for President George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq and the broader war on terror was largely responsible for ending the political career of Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, is a little understood fact in the corridors of power in Washington. On the day Mubarak appeared in court in the Egyptian capital, a message from the human rights charity Reprieve dropped into my email box, about a subject not far removed. But before going any further, I must declare an interest. I am a supporter of Reprieve.

The message said that, as part of ten leading human rights organizations, Reprieve had withdrawn from the inquiry, set up by the British government, into allegations that the authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees in the “war on terror.” These include organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Liberty. Lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees and torture victims also pulled out. Reprieve’s Executive Director Clare Algar explained why every single human rights body had decided to shun the inquiry. The two most important reasons given were the lack of transparency and the non-representation of torture victims.

The inquiry is headed by Sir Peter Gibson, a former appeals court judge. However, it will be the British government that will determine what material is made public. Already, the government has excluded from disclosure evidence from foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The inquiry was announced by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in July 2010, after he assumed office following the general election. Sir Peter’s appointment as its head immediately generated controversy, for he had previously served as the Intelligence Services Commissioner. There were those who said that his impartiality was “fatally compromised” because of his past relationship with the security services. Now, those pulling out have told him: “Plainly an inquiry conducted in the way that you describe and in accordance with the protocol would not comply with Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights.” So there will be a boycott.

Critics say that the exercise is going to be “secretive and toothless.” It follows the U.S. line under President Barack Obama, who, contrary to his lofty campaign promises, now says that he does not want to look back, only ahead. The road ahead is a darkened alley.

Fortunately, there have been bigger, much more credible investigations elsewhere, conducted without fear or favor. In 2007, the Council of Europe’s investigation by the Swiss Senator Dick Marty found European governments guilty of collusion in CIA torture, in running secret CIA prisons on their soil, in deceit and misinformation. Senator Marty’s report concluded that large numbers of people had been abducted, kept in detention without any “precise charge” in camps where torture was “common practice.”

In a high-profile case in Britain, a bench of top judges found that the British intelligence service MI5 was involved in the ill-treatment of British resident Binyam Mohamed, who spent years in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. In a draft judgment, Justice Lord Neuberger wrote that the security service failed to respect human rights, misled parliament and had a “culture of suppression” which undermined government assurances about its conduct. The judge’s remarks would never have come to light had it not subsequently emerged that the British government’s senior lawyer, Jonathan Sumpton Q.C., secretly pleaded that the judge soften his criticism before handing down the ruling. The judge agreed, but Sumpton’s letter was made public. That letter referred to an MI5 officer, described as Witness B, who was understood to have interrogated Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan in 2002.

That the latest inquiry has become trapped in a crisis of credibility is therefore not surprising. However, it does not stop there. The Guardian newspaper has just disclosed the existence of a top secret document showing how MI5 and MI6 officers were allowed to extract information from prisoners being illegally tortured abroad. Further, it has emerged that the government was worried about the application of this policy becoming public. For the document warns that if it became known that information had been obtained through the mistreatment of detainees, then the British public could be at a greater risk of a terrorist attack, and the disclosure could result in damage to the reputation of the [intelligence] agencies.

Disturbing questions therefore arise even before the inquiry has begun. How can it be credible if such documents exist, but are not made public? Is there not a risk of the inquiry being seen as a whitewash? What purpose will it serve if, in the light of what is already known, questions remain afterward about British complicity and torture? It would be a supreme irony if more people ended up having faith in Egypt’s trial of Hosni Mubarak than Britain’s official inquiry into its own security services.