Fishy Tales

17 May 2005

Tortuous Thread

Following the bloody crackdown on a civil uprising in Andijan last Friday (13th), a media spotlight has been on Uzbekistan. This has served to highlight the US/UK double standards on tyranny, and more particularly on tyrants with a taste for torture.

Former British Ambassador Craig Murray lost his job at least in part due to speaking out against human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and exposing US/UK hypocrisy. He continues to speak out as a free agent, writing in the Guardian and on his own website.

Martin Samuel really lays in to the US/UK governments in an article in The Times. He draws a compelling analogy between the Uzbek leader Karimov and Saddam Hussein: both murderous, torturing tyrants actively supported by the West while they support its interests. Which has made us, and continues to make us, complicit in Bush's famous "fire of freedom" being definitively tamed, even stamped out:
the freedom our precious coalition claims to be exporting around the world is not true freedom at all. Rather, it is freedom we are giving back, having conspired with sadists to take [it] away.

It's not pleasant to think about torture; it feels a little like staring at a particularly grisly car crash. But what we don't think about never changes, and the powers that be can take advantage of ignorance, playing with words and blurring definitions ("not torture, but interrogation") so they are never held to account. And let's face it, that suits many of us just fine - after all, it's not our problem, is it? That's why we have politicians.

But for those who think we may have a smidgeon of responsibility, let's start with definitions.

What is torture? See these Q&As on torture provided by Human Rights Watch. Also the UN Convention against Torture is cogently summarised in this Spokesman article.

There are some particularly lurid and notorious examples of torture, and nobody would argue with their definition as such - from Mediaeval tortures to Saddam's (likely fictional) "people shredder" to Karimov's (definitely really) boiling people alive.

But torture is clearly not just when a physical mark is left on the victim - there are plenty of ways of causing pain without leaving a mark. A particular favourite would appear to be binding people in unnatural positions for long periods, e.g. with limbs suspended. And torture is not restricted to physical pain. Mental torture is still torture, and a particularly apposite example is when threats are made, or suffering actually inflicted, on the victim's family.

As you'll notice by reference to the double standards articles above, it looks very like the US has gone well beyond merely sustaining an oppressive and murderous regime, and has actually flown terrorist suspects out to Uzbekistan for "rendition" = interrogation, Uzbek style.

And what about the UK? Well, it's not so surprising that criticism of the US rendition policy has been suppressed (cf Craig Murray). After all, they suffered 9/11 a few years ago, so they've been granted license to disregard the human rights of at least 3200 terrorist suspects.

However, we haven't left our support for torture there. The current UK policy is that evidence obtained through torture is admissible in UK courts, meaning that we:
  1. believe real evidence can be obtained through torture (as opposed to just a confession).
  2. give succour to people like Karimov, who will import suspects and export information, making money and gaining influence - and even praise - as a result.
Badger wrote an excellent post the end justifies the means in reaction to the Court of Appeal ruling back on 11 August 2004 that evidence obtained through torture was admissible. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Liberty and many other human rights organisations fought hard against the ruling...
... and thankfully, have continued to do so, with the net result that Liberty has announced that between 17/20 October 2005 the Law Lords will hear the submissions of these human rights organisations, who believe that under no circumstances should torture evidence ever be admissible.

As the brilliantly eloquent Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty puts it:
Liberty is confident that the House of Lords will endorse the overwhelming consensus of decent British people who do not wish to see our government complicit in acts of torture anywhere.

Secret intelligence gained by torture is unreliable, counter-productive and brings shame on what should be one of the worlds leading democracies.

Hear, Hear.

Let's all us "decent British people" get behind this one for once, rather than allow ourselves to be led once again into a moral sewer by our own government, led by the US government, led by its own worst fears.


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