UK drops security claim blocking Pakistani’s lawsuit over ‘torture’

Government abandons argument that UK-US intelligence ties preclude letting Yunus Rahmatullah sue for damages

The UK government has abandoned its long-standing claim that relations with Washington would suffer if a Pakistani citizen who claims he was tortured by British and American troops was allowed to sue for damages in court.

Yunus Rahmatullah says he was tortured over a 10-year period after being captured by British special forces in Iraq and handed over to US troops in 2004. He was released by the US without charge in May.

The British government made the concession as a former American ambassador roundly dismissed the government’s case.

“It is highly unlikely the US government would limit intelligence cooperation with the UK if British courts heard Rahmatullah’s or similar claims,” Tom Pickering told the Guardian.

“The UK government’s position is based on a misconception of US national security strategy and the importance the US government accords the rule of law”, he said.

The senior American diplomat, who served under presidents Reagan and Bush, added: “To sever, or somehow restrict, the intelligence relationship with the UK would simply be contrary to US national security.”

He said allegations of mistreatment by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had already been acknowledged by the US government. “Ventilating them once more in a court of law is highly unlikely to cause any harm to US-UK ties. It makes little sense for the US government to be offended by allegations that are already public,” Pickering said.

US sanctioning of activities that amounted to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of US and international law led to serious abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, including in Rahmatullah’s case, he added.

It was American mistreatment of detainees that had a negative impact on US relations with its allies, Pickering said. “Foreign militaries, including the UK, limited cooperation with the US military as a result.”

Pickering has intervened in the Rahmatullah case heard before Mr Justice Leggatt in the high court on Tuesday. He has signed an expert witness statement challenging claims about damage to UK‑US relations made by Foreign Office officials.

Lawyers for the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office made their concession following a recent appeal court ruling rejecting a similar argument made by MI5 and MI6 in the case of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his Moroccan wife, Fatima Bouchar, who were abducted and secretly rendered to Tripoli in a joint MI6-CIA operation. The couple say they were tortured by Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces.

The court of appeal ruled last month: “There is a compelling public interest in the investigation by the English courts of these very grave allegations. The risk of displeasing our allies or offending other states … cannot justify our declining jurisdiction on grounds of act of state over what is a properly justiciable claim.”

Government lawyers indicated on Tuesday they would challenge that judgment in the supreme court.

Kat Craig, a director of the legal charity Reprieve, said: “The government’s desperate attempts to duck responsibility for its role in rendition and torture are fast becoming a national embarrassment.

“Seemingly no one – not even a former senior US ambassador – sees their claims that this case would damage UK relations with the US as at all credible.”

Sapna Malik, of the law firm Leigh Day, which is representing Rahmatullah, said: “Given the gravity of the allegations raised in Mr Rahmatullah’s case, it is right that the British government has today conceded that it is bound by this principle.

“What is frustrating for our clients, however, is ... there is yet further delay as the government insists on appealing [against] the decision and pursuing its untenable position all the way up to the supreme court.”

Last year the supreme court described Rahmatullah’s treatment by UK and US forces as unlawful and a possible war crime. “The, presumably forcible, transfer of Mr Rahmatullah from Iraq to Afghanistan is, at least prima facie, a breach of article 49 [of the fourth Geneva convention],” it said.


Richard Norton-Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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