Britain Said to Seek Weaker Torture Protections

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 2, 2006

LONDON, Nov. 2 -- The British government has systematically attempted to water down laws banning the transfer of terror suspects to countries that practice torture, according to a report issued Thursday by Human Rights Watch.

British officials strongly disputed the report's conclusions.

"Britain cannot have it both ways," Benjamin Ward, an official with the New York-based rights agency, said in a statement. "The government claims to oppose torture. Yet at the same time, it is actively trying to undermine the global ban against it."

The group concluded that the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has adopted a "dangerous ambivalence" toward torture of suspected terrorists abroad since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the July 2005 bombings of the London public transit system.

"We're not in any way ambivalent about torture; we absolutely condemn torture and oppose it unreservedly," said a spokeswoman for the British Home Office, which handles domestic security. The spokeswoman spoke on condition of anonymity, following government practice here.

British opposition parties say Blair's government slavishly follows the American lead in foreign affairs, in particular the decision to invade Iraq. The war is widely unpopular here.

British and European law prohibit deportation to a country where there is a likelihood that the deportee would be tortured. The British government has announced that it is seeking written assurances from countries, including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, that they would not torture or mistreat suspected extremists deported from Britain.

Human Rights Watch said such assurances were little more than a legal fig leaf. "When it comes to torture, diplomatic assurances simply don't work," Ward said.

The Home Office spokeswoman said British officials believe that such assurances would be effective and added that the government was "happy to leave it up to the courts" to decide whether that policy was proper. She pointed out that in August a British judge ruled that the government could deport an Algerian man to his home country despite his argument that he would face torture there.

"The government is committed to protecting the public from the very real threat of terrorism," she said, adding that the government was trying to balance a deportee's risk of being tortured against the security risk posed if the person remained in Britain.

"It should be possible to take some account of the risk posed by the person on grounds of national security," she said.

The rights group also accused the Blair government of "whitewashing U.S. government abuses," including the practice of "rendition" of suspected extremists to countries that use torture.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said British officials have no evidence that U.S. officials ever conducted a rendition using British territory or airspace.

"The U.K. government have not approved and will not approve a policy of facilitating the transfer of individuals through the U.K. to places where there are substantial grounds to believe they would face a risk of torture," the spokesman said.

Human Rights Watch said Blair had failed to use his close relationship with President Bush to press for changes to policies such as rendition. "The U.K. is losing the credibility that it once enjoyed," the report concluded. "The government's determination to bend the rules on its own account, and its refusal to confront abuses committed by its closest ally, is a moral and political abdication, in defiance of international law."

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