UK: Torture guidelines `could breach human rights`

A watchdog said procedures could leave intel staff exposed to legal action.

Last Updated: Sep 27, 2010, 15:32 PM IST

London: British intelligence officers dealing with suspects facing torture overseas may risk contravening human rights laws if they follow new guidelines, a watchdog warned on Monday.

The new guidance was published in July after Prime Minister David Cameron promised an inquiry into allegations that British intelligence staff were aware of maltreatment of terror suspects by foreign states.

The Equality and Humans Rights Commission -- which monitors human rights in Britain -- praised the government`s "positive steps" but voiced "serious concerns" that the new procedures could still leave intelligence staff exposed to legal action.

New guidelines warn officers that they must not interview detainees held by foreign authorities when they "know or believe" they will be tortured, but still permit it when there is a "serious risk".

The watchdog said judicial review proceedings could be launched if a "satisfactory response" was not provided by September 30.

"The commission asked whether, in its current form, the guidance does enough to protect officers in the field because it may leave them with the erroneous expectation that they will be protected from personal criminal liability in situations where they may, unwittingly, be liable for crimes committed and condoned by others," the EHRC said.

John Wadham, the commission`s legal director, explained further: "The government now has the opportunity to bring its guidance within the law so that the intelligence service itself and its individual officers do not unwittingly leave themselves open to costly and time-consuming court action."

The government strongly defended its position, insisting no action would be authorised "in the knowledge or belief that torture would occur".

"The government stands firmly against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment," a Cabinet Office spokesman said.

"We do not condone it, nor do we ask others to do it on our behalf. We, and in particular our personnel on the ground, work very hard to reduce the risks of detainees being subjected to mistreatment when they are held by other countries.”

"We have established a clear framework for them to operate legally, proportionately and with respect for human rights."

The government`s review was prompted by the claims of London resident Binyam Mohamed, who says he was tortured with the knowledge of British officials while being detained by the CIA in Pakistan.

Bureau Report