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Binyam Mohamed: A Shameful Cover-Up

by Clive Stafford Smith

In a scathing judgment running to 84 pages, the court of appeal has slapped the government down in the case of Binyam Mohamed. As many will recall, Mohamed was seized by the Pakistanis in April 2002, turned over to the Americans for a $5,000 bounty, abused for three months, rendered to Morocco, tortured with razor blades to the genitals, rendered on to the "Dark Prison" in Kabul, tortured some more, and then held for five years without charge or trial in Bagram Air Force Base and Guantánamo Bay. The verdict of the court – comprised of three of the country's most senior judges – underlines the shameful way in which, in this case and beyond, our political leaders have placed their own desire to suppress embarrassing revelations above the welfare of citizens.

With Mohamed's torture now established as a judicial fact, the judges queried what reason there could be to cover up the now-notorious "seven paragraphs"? This summary was removed from the original opinion when the government cried national security. The material is important – it adds direct evidence that the Americans wrote down their torture tactics, and that a British agent knew Mohamed was being abused before he flew to Pakistan to join the interrogation – but represents only a few crumbs of the overall criminal enterprise.

Yet two years into the litigation, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, still argued that a court would be "irresponsible" to reveal the material – strong language when aimed by the diplomatic service at the judicial branch.

"No advantage is achieved by bandying deprecatory epithets," the judges replied, before passing out a few polite insults themselves. The foreign secretary's continued intransigence was "irrational" and lacking in "commonsense." With the original high court judges, that makes five independent members of the judiciary against one US-dependent politician.

So what is truly at stake here? At its most significant level, the decision focused on a legacy of the "war on terror" that is more bitter even than abusing prisoners: the conflation of national security with political embarrassment. The fact of torture is horrific; but the concerted effort of British and American officials to cover up the torturers' crimes is far more insidious. How can we learn from history, and avoid repeating mistakes, if we do not know what that history is?

This is a high-profile example of a national disease. Because we fear for our safety and cherish our privacy, politicians argue that we will lose both if we do not sacrifice our right to free speech, our "right to know". We should, in other words, simply trust them.

This is the path that British politicians have been treading all too frequently. Nobody would have known that three Labour MPs committed expense fraud, or that scores of others spent money on the ethical equivalent of a duck pond, if we were only allowed to see the redacted version of the MPs expenses. The claim in that case was "privacy".

The seven paragraphs should rate little more than a footnote in the full story, yet that is a tale that remains untold. The court tells us that a "vast body" of government reports about Mohamed's abuse remain secret. I was in Washington last week reviewing a similarly "vast body" of evidence indicating British complicity in the abuse of another Guantánamo prisoner, Shaker Aamer. Not a word of that has been revealed, again on grounds of national security.

Since I am not as temperate as a judge, I would not characterise the arguments made by Miliband as "irrational": after beginning with the term "foolish," I fear I would descend to epithets unfit to print in this publication. Suppressing any evidence of government criminality on grounds of national security sets a very dangerous precedent. As the saying goes, those who would sacrifice their freedoms to ensure their safety deserve neither – and can expect to lose both.

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