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Thursday, March 26, 2009 

A police investigation, but how far will it go?

It's difficult to know whether to be surprised at the decision of the Attorney General to refer to the Metropolitan police her concerns that MI5 may have broken the law through its alleged complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, or surprised but at the same time cynical. The manoeuvres last week by the government, announcing that they would publish the guidelines MI5 and 6 would follow when interviewing suspects abroad, that the Intelligence and Security Committee would reinvestigate Mohamed's treatment, and that there would be a new agreement with the Pakistani authorities concerning their treatment of British detainees seemed to be an attempt to bring the embarrassment involving Mohamed's allegations to an abrupt end. Hopes were not raised by the length of time that Baroness Scotland was taking to look into the claims, which themselves arose after the evidence heard in a secret session of the court case involving Mohamed's lawyers' attempts to gain access to documents detailing his detention was felt to be so serious that the "possible criminal wrongdoing" demanded further investigation. Undoubtedly both the government and MI5 would have hoped to have avoided an investigation of any sort; that Scotland has decided that there is a possible case to answer is deserving of praise, especially considering her predecessor's considerable lack of independence from the government.

It will however be prudent to be concerned about just how wide the investigation will be and whether it will get anywhere. At the moment it looks like it may just be investigating the behaviour of "Witness B", the MI5 officer who drew the short straw and was the person who interviewed Mohamed while he was being held in Pakistan, where he was already suffering ill-treatment but was yet to be subjected to the "medieval" torture that he almost certainly suffered in Morocco. It's apparent from other cases that "Witness B" was not the only person to show a worrying lack of concern for detainees' well-being while in Pakistani custody, and the spectre of him being made a scapegoat and left hung out to dry is potentially worse than there being no investigation at all. As the Guardian has established, Mohamed's interrogation by "Witness B" was almost certainly the result of an official policy which had been drawn up by government ministers in conjunction with the security services. This agreement essentially took the "three monkeys" approach: they did nothing that would directly associate them with the ill-treatment that is endemic in Pakistani custody, while also doing nothing to stop it from happening. This was further compounded by how despite claiming to not know where Mohamed had been taken, they supplied information to the Americans which was subsequently used during the "interrogation" sessions in Morocco.

In other words, this potentially goes all the way to the very top. As has been pointed out, the current head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, was in charge of international counter-terrorism at the time. It hardly seems realistic that Knacker of the Yard is going to burst into Thames House and ask Evans to come along quietly, just as it seems doubtful that the spooks will be letting anything incriminating slip into their statements to the police. They can, after all, just like normal suspects, completely refuse to co-operate with the police's inquiries. This is one of the major reasons why there should be an independent judicial review, where evidence, not necessarily in public, would have to be given under oath. Doubtless also the likes of the Sun, which has been shameless in their disbelief concerning Mohamed's treatment, will be squealing tomorrow about how it will be distracting MI5 from their vital work of keeping us safe from those whom would, uh, not think twice about instigating similar methods.

This though is not just about Mohamed, but about how we suddenly decided that complicity with torture, not just of others but our own citizens and residents was acceptable despite knowing full well that torture makes for hopeless "intelligence". Those responsible should be at the least brought to account and made to explain themselves; criminal charges may well be sought, but again they seem unlikely to stick, just as very little concerning the war on terror has stuck to this government. The hope has to be again that today's announced investigation will shed even more light on one of the most shaming events in our recent history.

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