In a story in The Guardian today, it was reported that the UK’s Metropolitan Police are investigating MI5 for complicity in US torture in relation to the case of Guantanamo detainee Aamer Shaker. Shaker is a permanent resident of the UK and is married to a UK citizen. The report claims that “Investigating officers have applied to the high court for the release of classified documents relating to the case. They are already investigating claims of MI5 complicity in the ill-treatment of British resident Binyam Mohamed while being held by the US.”
If the story is accurate, it represents an interesting development. Over the last 9 years, western intelligence agencies have repeatedly sought to “piggy-back” upon abusive interrogations conducted by the US directly or by one of its “war on terror” allies (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, even Syria). This piggy-backing has taken various forms, from sending questions to be put to individuals detained by one of these allies (while feigning ignorance of the risk of torture this may pose to the detained person), to attending places of detention in the aftermath of abusive interrogation to question the detainee directly (such as in the case of Omar Khadr and Binyamin Mohammed).
When these visits have been revealed, the intelligence agencies and their governments have often denied that they have violated any aspects of the prohibition on torture, because the detainee is not in their custody (and so not within jurisdiction) and because (they argue) such conduct does meet the requirements of the international or domestic criminal law tests for “complicity.”
So far, it has not been possible to test their claim about whether such conduct could amount to complicity under national or international criminal law, because no serious criminal investigation has been undertaken into the facts (including, importantly, the mental states and state of knowledge of the intelligence agents who conducted these visits and those who ordered them to do so). The inquiries that I am aware of, such as the Arar Inquiry and the Iacobucci Inquiry (both Canadian government inquiries into the conduct of Canadian officials towards Canadian nationals detained and tortured in Syria) have not had a mandate to examine questions of criminal complicity.
A UK domestic prosecution of one of its own intelligence agents for complicity in US torture would be an extraordinary development. It would set an example for many other states which have engaged in similar activities of what a rigorous application of the rule of law might look like. It might also help to ensure that the dreadful tolerance for torture and abusive interrogation at the hands of third parties that many western intelligence agencies have shown in the aftermath of September 11 will not be repeated.