Published on
The Guardian/UK

Zero Tolerance for Torture

Clive Stafford Smith

Over the past two days, Ian Cobain has continued his excellent expose of British complicity in torture in the Guardian. By now, few can doubt that in the eight years since 9/11 the British government has taken some steps that were illegal, others that were indubitably immoral and many more that were unwise.

The apologists for torture constantly propagate their myths to justify their nightmare. If it is not a ticking timebomb in Trafalgar Square, then it is the notion that torture-induced intelligence might thwart another 7/7. No official ever produces evidence that might corral these hypotheticals within the realm of reality - we are left only with the dark assurances of Dick Cheney. (My own experience with classified evidence convinces me that Cheney is straying some distance from the truth.)

Even if there were proof that torture sometimes saved lives, that would hardly win the debate, on either a moral or a utilitarian analysis. Overall, can anyone doubt that the west has been made less safe by our leaders' dabbling in torture and abuse? For example, can anyone honestly gainsay the opinion of an anonymous CIA agent - that for each prisoner mistreated in Guantánamo Bay, we have provoked 10 angry men who wish us harm?

And the ripples of torture taint all those who come in contact with it. As our own investigation continues at Reprieve into the torture of Binyam Mohamed, it becomes clear that the British intelligence services have used many unwitting agents in their own felonies. For example, the Metropolitan police were asked to dig out the information that was fed to Mohamed's Moroccan torturers.


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I wonder, though, whether it is not time we began to consider a different question: what positive steps will our government take to renounce the terror of torture? I, for one, don't much care if British officials are ever prosecuted for torture; but I do very much want to contribute to a world where nobody suffers in the torture chamber again.

Pious government assurances that British agents never torture are not enough - for Marwan, the leader of Mohamed's Moroccan abusers, did not handle the razor blade; he stood back and observed.

An official promise that British agents will report back to their superiors when they witness torture is insufficient: the British government knew about Mohamed's torture, did nothing to stop it and continues to suppress the evidence.

There is only one solution: if our politicians promise zero tolerance for drugs or for racism on the football terrace, surely they can accept zero tolerance for torture? Where we see it, we must stop it; where we suspect it, we must investigate it; and where we believe it has happened, we must ensure that the abusers are exposed. If we are to avoid its deadly fruit, the poisoned tree must be torn out by its roots.

Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of defendants facing the death penalty in the USA

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